The United States has promised to inform the world of its conclusions about what role the crown prince of Saudi Arabia played in the brutal murder and dismemberment of a US-based journalist, but what matters is what happens next – what the Biden administration is planning about it. .
In the lead-up to the release of unclassified US intelligence reports and the announcement of US punitive measures, President Joe Biden spoke with Saudi King Salman on Thursday for the first time since taking office more than a month ago. It was a slower than usual call of honor to Middle Eastern allies, a time seen as reflecting Biden’s displeasure. However, the White House reading made no mention of the murder or the report.
The talks were overshadowed by findings expected to be released soon on whether the king’s son approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s consolidation of authoritarian rule, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. US intelligence agencies concluded in 2018 that the prince most likely ordered the killings, a finding that was reported by the news media but never officially released.
The White House said Biden on Thursday discussed with King Salman the two countries’ “long-term partnership” and welcomed the recent release from the kingdom of the rights of women and several other political prisoners.
The language contrasts with Biden’s pledge as a candidate to turn Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the killings. The White House did not provide a direct explanation for his gentler tone to the king.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency also made no mention of Khashoggi’s killing in a report on calls between Biden and King Salman, instead focusing on regional issues such as Iran and the ongoing war in Yemen.
The King and Biden stressed “the depth of relations between the two countries and the importance of strengthening the partnership between them to serve their interests and achieve security and stability in the region and the world,” the report said.
Critics of the prince, including rights groups set up by slain journalists, want him to fulfill that promise with sanctions or other crackdowns that target and isolate the prince. They fear Biden will walk away in condemnation instead, avoiding a perpetual impasse with the possible future ruler of an important, but often difficult, US strategic ally that is rewarded both for its oil reserves and its status as Iran’s counterweight in the Middle East.
The murder provoked bipartisan outrage. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas said on Thursday he expected Biden to speak to the king “very honestly about it, and very emphatically, and say this is unacceptable”. Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said he understood the government was considering new sanctions to accompany the report’s release. “So it’s a day of reckoning, but it’s long overdue.”
The report’s findings, and Biden’s next steps, will at least set the tone for the administration to deal with the ambitious 35-year-old prince.
Critics blame Mohammed bin Salman for the royal imprisonment and alleged torture of peaceful rights advocates, businessmen and other royals at home and for launching a devastating war in neighboring Yemen and a failed economic blockade against neighboring Qatar, among other measures.
Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated power rapidly since his father, Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, in his 80s, became king in 2015. Salman is one of the last sons of the original founder of modern Saudi Arabia.
Given his age and the longevity of Saudi royals, the prince could rule for the next half century if he follows his aging father to the throne.
“This happens in the span of two or three years – just imagine what will happen in the next 40 years if they allow him to rule,” Abdullah al Oudh, a Saudi man who has received asylum in the United States after Saudi Arabia jailed al Ayah Oudh. in 2017 over a tweet urging Saudi reconciliation with Qatar, said Thursday.
“This man … sees the world as the stage for his failed operation,” said Oudh, director of Gulf research for Democracy for the Arab World Now, a rights group that Khashoggi founded shortly before his assassination.
A spokesman for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Saudi officials say Khashoggi’s murder was the work of rogue Saudi security and intelligence officials.
The prince said in 2019 he took “full responsibility” for the killing because it took place under his watch, but denied ordering it.
The US intelligence findings come more than two years after Khashoggi walked hand in hand with his fiancé to the Saudi consulate in Turkey. She plans to take documents for their marriage.
The task was recorded by surveillance cameras tracking his route and those of his suspected killer in Istanbul hours before his murder.
Inside the consulate, Khashoggi died at the hands of more than a dozen Saudi and other security and intelligence officials who had gathered prior to his arrival.
A Turkish bug planted in the embassy reportedly picked up the sound of a forensic saw, operated by a Saudi military colonel who is also a forensic expert, dismembering Khashoggi’s body within an hour of entering the building. The whereabouts of his remains are still unknown.
Much of the damage from the killing of Khashoggi, a gregarious and respected Saudi journalist with influential supporters in the United States and around the world, has been absorbed by US-Saudi relations.
After taking office, Biden said he would maintain any scale of relations with Saudi Arabia that US interests required. He also ordered an end to US support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and said he would stop selling offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. He gave few details about what weapons and support he meant.
Asked how the release of the findings would affect Biden’s approach to Saudi Arabia, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that a number of options were on the table.
“There are areas where we will raise concerns and leave accountability options open,” said Psaki. “There are also areas where we will continue to work with Saudi Arabia, given the threats they face in the region.”
Congress in 2019 demanded the report’s findings be released, but the Trump administration refused. The Biden administration agreed to release an unclassified version.
A Saudi Arabian court last year announced that it had sentenced eight Saudi nationals to prison for the killing of Khashoggi. They were not identified.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Chicago contributed to this report.