Speaking on Thursday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted that he will hold Saudi Arabia to account over its investigation into the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was killed earlier this month by Saudi intelligence officers, almost certainly acting under direction from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But by stating that he expected the Saudi investigation would be "truly accurate, fair, and transparent in the very way that they made a personal commitment to me," Pompeo robustly, albeit subtly, warned the Saudis to avoid a whitewash.
The key word is "personal commitment." By framing the investigation in terms of a personal relationship, Pompeo has engaged Sunni-Arab tribal traditions of honor. That means that were the Saudi government to lie now, they would be betraying their own honor and Pompeo personally, not just as the senior functionary of a foreign government.
The Saudis know what this means — that they have been put on notice to tell the truth or face a righteous wrath that they themselves will have invited. Pompeo's words are specifically designed to move Mohammed bin Salman beyond his presently aloof attitude and penchant for a whitewash and into a far more serious deliberation.
Still, the Saudi problem here isn't just that they must now choose between admitting a hard truth. I am extremely confident that bin Salman is responsible for Khashoggi's killing and that he is now lying. It is the fact that the Saudis know the U.S. and its allies already know what happened anyway. In part, that's because of Turkish intelligence, but it's also because the U.S. has its own intelligence indicating official culpability by bin Salman.
So, what happens next?
Well, Pompeo hopes and intends that the Saudis will recognize that America wants to salvage this relationship. Hopefully, the Saudis will thus admit that this was an officially-sanctioned operation and pledge never to repeat it again. The U.S. will probably accept bin Salman's acceptance of responsibility with the caveat that he intended for Khashoggi to be kidnapped. In turn, Pompeo will ask for Saudi humanitarian concessions in Yemen, and then, the relationship will rumble on. For both sides, that's the best possible outcome.