ANKARA/WASHINGTON (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Monday (Oct 15) ordered an internal probe into the unexplained disappearance of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a joint Turkish-Saudi team was set to search the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was last seen on Oct 2.
US President Donald Trump said, meanwhile, he had spoken with King Salman about Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom's policies, and that he was sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet the king immediately.
Trump also said Salman denied "any knowledge of whatever may have happened" to Khashoggi, who disappeared after he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, and told him the Saudis are working closely with Turkey on the case.
Khashoggi, a US resident and Washington Post columnist, vanished after entering the consulate to get marriage documents. Turkish officials have said authorities believe he was murdered and his body removed, allegations that Saudi Arabia has denied.
The case has provoked an international outcry, with Trump threatening "severe punishment" if it turns out Khashoggi was killed in the consulate and European allies urging "a credible investigation" and accountability for those responsible.
A Turkish diplomatic source said investigators would inspect the consulate on Monday afternoon, after delays last week when Turkey accepted a Saudi proposal to work together to find out what happened to Khashoggi.
"The King has ordered the Public Prosecutor to open an internal investigation into the Khashoggi matter based on the info from the joint team in Istanbul," a Saudi official, not authorised to speak publicly, told Reuters.
Asked when the public prosecutor could make an announcement about the investigation, the official said: "He was instructed to work quickly."
Britain expects Riyadh to provide "a complete and detailed response" to questions over Khashoggi's disappearance, Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said on Monday.
Saudi Arabia has responded to Western statements by saying it would retaliate against any pressure or economic sanctions "with greater action", and Arab allies rallied to support it, setting up a potential showdown between the world's top oil exporter and its main Western allies.
King Salman and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone on Sunday evening and stressed the importance of the two countries creating a joint group as part of the probe.
Broadcaster CNN Turk reported on Monday that the Saudi team had arrived at Istanbul police headquarters.
Foreign capital is key to Saudi plans for economic diversification and job creation.
But concern over the disappearance has seen media organisations and a growing number of attendees pull out of a "Davos in the Desert" investment conference set for Oct 23-25, which has become the biggest show for investors to promote Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reform vision.
On Monday, a source familiar with the matter said Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman and BlackRock Chief Executive Larry Fink were pulling out of the summit. Both companies declined comment.
Khashoggi, a familiar face on Arab talk shows, moved to the United States last year fearing retribution for his criticism of Prince Mohammed, who has cracked down on dissent with arrests.
The former newspaper editor once interviewed Osama bin Laden and later became a consummate insider, advising former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal when he served as ambassador in London and Washington.
A pro-government Turkish daily published preliminary evidence last week from investigators it said identified a 15-member Saudi intelligence team which arrived in Istanbul on diplomatic passports hours before Khashoggi disappeared.
The Saudi consulate referred Reuters to authorities in Riyadh who did not respond to questions about the 15 Saudis.
Khashoggi's disappearance is threatening to spark a geopolitical crisis as the US and Turkey demand answers from Saudi Arabia. Until now, Saudi officials have repeated that the columnist and critic of the kingdom left the consulate unharmed, calling allegations that he was kidnapped or killed baseless. The news of the internal probe is the first sign that they could be rethinking their approach.
"It's either going to be a partial admission of guilt while trying to absolve the top level, or they'll say they haven't found anything," said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor of at the London School of Economics who closely follows Gulf politics.
"This, I think, depends on the crown prince. So far, he seems to have been quite headstrong on the whole thing and he hasn't backed down." Turkey and Saudi Arabia work together on some common issues and share business interests, but also have a good deal of political bad blood.
How far Ankara goes in escalating the crisis over Khashoggi may ultimately depend on the extent of international backing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan receives.
"By leaking information on the case in a controlled manner, Turks have signalled their willingness to confront the Saudis if they have enough international support, particularly from the West," said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies in Washington. "But if that support is not forthcoming, Erdogan may very well choose to pursue a less aggressive approach and offer the Saudis a way out."