RIYADH, Oct 26 — The Saudi crown prince may have failed to quell international outrage over critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, but a defiant speech has won him domestic plaudits even as sceptics fear the impact of geopolitics on the search for justice.

After weeks of silence, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Salman on Wednesday confronted the elephant in the room head on, denouncing the journalist’s “repulsive” murder after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 and pledging that “justice will prevail”.

His first public comments on the case were met with claps and whistles in a packed ballroom at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, and one Saudi woman listening to the prince was overheard saying the speech brought “tears to my eyes”.

That stands in contrast to the outrage that has been building globally, with US President Donald Trump describing the killing as “one of the worst” cover-ups in history and appearing to indicate in a media interview that the prince himself may be culpable.

But the prince’s swaggering demeanour at a glittering investment conference — just after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who earlier vowed to reveal the “naked truth” about the killing — fuelled speculation about a possible behind-the-scenes deal.

“It does definitely suggest that,” said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“You want to look very carefully at Turkish rhetoric in the coming days, but it’s entirely possible that the Saudi government was successful in reaching an accommodation with Erdogan, particularly with the support of the United States.”

The Saudi information ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Cheque book diplomacy’

Ankara’s slow drip of salacious leaks about the Washington Post columnist’s murder in Turkey –- the world’s biggest jailer of journalists –- has kept the murder case in international headlines for weeks.

But it is yet to produce a smoking gun despite claims by Turkish officials they have incriminating audio evidence.

The growing international outcry may have allowed Erdogan to negotiate with the oil-rich Gulf kingdom “behind the scenes” as Turkey grapples with a looming economic crisis, said Bessma Momani, a professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo.

“Erdogan knows the Saudis — and their Emirati allies — are a potential source of sorely needed capital and investment opportunities,” she said.

The Saudis appear keen for “Turkish silence on who is really culpable in Khashoggi’s murder”, claimed Momani.

The Turkish investigation appears to be ongoing, but Momani’s view may chime with what analysts call Saudi Arabia’s “cheque book diplomacy”, which has helped Riyadh project strong support on the Khashoggi crisis from less wealthy Arab allies.

Shift on Qatar

In his speech, the prince projected strong relations with Turkey despite Ankara’s leaks, saying those trying to drive a wedge between the two Muslim countries “will not succeed as long as there is a king named Salman and a crown prince named Mohammed Salman”.

Displaying their newfound cooperation, Saudi Arabia said yesterday that Khashoggi’s murder was “premeditated” based on information supplied by Turkey, backing away from an earlier assertion that he was killed accidentally in a fist fight at the consulate.

What further stoked speculation about a possible deal with Ankara was Prince Mohammed’s surprisingly conciliatory tone on Qatar –- allied with Turkey –- after Saudi Arabia and its allies spent more than a year enforcing an embargo against the tiny gas-rich emirate.

“Even Qatar, despite our differences with it, has a strong economy and it will be completely different in five years,” the prince said in his speech on Wednesday.

Analysts say that may well be the first step in acceding to Erdogan’s wishes that Saudi Arabia end its crippling blockade on Qatar.

“For Erdogan, restoring stability in the Gulf by patching up differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar remains a key priority to his regional agenda,” said Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East analyst in Washington.

Justice for Khashoggi

Wednesday’s speech by Prince Mohammed, widely known as MBS, triggered the social media hashtag “Saudis stand behind their leaders”.

Many Saudis have privately expressed concern over how the crisis has severely tarnished the prince’s reform credentials.

But many Saudis also feel the crown prince’s speech on Khashoggi looks to have taken the sting out of the crisis.

International pressure, however, may not easily subside even if both Washington and Ankara want to “move past this”, said Ibish.

“Other countries and, in the United States at least, Congress and the media, will have their say as well and are not irrelevant factors,” he said.

France on Wednesday said it was ready to back “international sanctions” against those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, after President Emmanuel Macron spoke by telephone to King Salman.

Despite Trump’s repeated assertions that he does not want to jeopardise multi-billion dollar arms deals with the kingdom, the US has threatened sanctions if the Saudi leadership is linked to the murder.

But justice for Khashoggi may still be a pipe dream.

“Geopolitical considerations are taking priority over finding out who exactly is culpable for Khashoggi’s murder,” said Momani.

“The US and other allies have large financial dealings and business contracts with the Saudis that leaders don’t want to jeopardise to get Khashoggi justice”, she argued. — AFP