Biden holds off punishing Saudi crown prince, despite US intel
President Biden on Friday stopped short of announcing any punitive measures against Saudi Arabia’s crown prince despite the release of an intelligence report linking the Kingdom’s day-to-day ruler to the grisly killing of a U.S-based journalist.
The declassified report said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved a plot to “capture or kill” journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, who was lured to the Saudi consulate and killed. The report’s release raises the stakes on relations between the Biden administration and the likely next ruler of the Saudi Kingdom.
The administration announced a range of punitive measures against Saudi officials and individuals it said were involved in Khashoggi’s death in October 2018, though it held off penalizing Prince Mohammad himself — a move likely to put the president at odds with key Democratic leaders and human rights groups calling for stronger measures against the crown prince.
“The Saudi government in general, and [Mohammed bin Salman] in particular, have a cloud hanging over them and there’s a lot of work to be done to repair that,” Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Hill.
“The question is, how much does anyone want to let it affect U.S.-Saudi relations?”
The New York Times, citing senior administration officials, said the consensus in the White House was to avoid visa restrictions or criminal charges on the crown prince over concerns it would hurt critical cooperation with Saudi Arabia in general on threats related to counter-terrorism and confronting Iran.
“The administration has signaled a certain distance from the crown prince,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But that’s not sustainable over the long run because the crown prince is the most significant decision maker in the kingdom and we should have an authoritative high level engagement with him.”
Prince Mohammed, the heir apparent to the Kingdom who officially holds the title of deputy prime minister underneath his father who is the prime minister, is also the Defense Minister, among other ruling titles.
He is an outsize figure in the Kingdom and on the global stage, enjoying mass popularity for his push to modernize the social and economic culture away from strict Wahhabi Islam and dependence on oil wealth.
Yet he has held a tight grip on power, leaving little to no room for dissent with political dissidents jailed and reportedly tortured. He also instituted a widespread roundup of his would-be political and royal challengers in a mass detention at the Ritz-Carlton in 2017, a few months after he was announced crown prince.
“All the political changes in Saudi Arabia over the past five years have been geared around strengthening him and making sure that he is in a position to succeed from his father, and there’s been an enormous centralization of power around the king and the crown prince,” said Ibish.
Democrats praised the administration on Friday for releasing the declassified Khashoggi report — which the Trump administration resisted doing — while pushing Biden for more direct action against the crown prince over its human rights record.
“By ending Donald Trump’s cover up of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, President Biden has demonstrated his commitment to transparency and compliance with law,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
“At the same time, I am hopeful it is only a first step and that the administration plans to take concrete measures holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for his role in this heinous crime.”
That was echoed by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who tweeted that Prince Mohammed has “blood on his hands” and repercussions should extend “to the one who ordered” Khashoggi’s death.
“MBS cannot be allowed to get away with monstrous murder,” added Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “This new report adds to a mounting pile of evidence that the Crown Prince is culpable for Khashoggi’s killing & cover-up. A reset in US-Saudi relations & accountability is urgently needed.”
Khashoggi, a former Saudi palace insider who became an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family and contributed to The Washington Post, was lured to the Saudi consulate in October 2018 with the impression he was obtaining marriage documents.
He was reportedly attacked, suffocated and his body dismembered with a bone saw by a hit squad of Saudi officials with close ties to the crown prince. The declassified U.S. report released Friday said it had “high confidence” in identifying 21 people who were implicated in Khashoggi’s death and that they did so with the knowledge and approval of the crown prince.
“Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization,” the report read.
Biden has taken a number of actions in what his administration describes as a “recalibration” of the relationship between Washington and Riyadh, including ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen and ending relevant arms sales. On Friday, the State Department also announced visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals it said are linked to Khashoggi’s killing.
The Treasury Department further levied sanctions against a former high-ranking intelligence official, Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri, who was earlier implicated in the attack on Khashoggi, as well as the crown prince’s personal security detail, the Rapid Intervention Force.
Human rights groups are calling for more.
“MBS has proven that he is unfit to represent the Kingdom on the global stage and we applaud the Biden administration for choosing to engage directly with King Salman,” Human Rights Foundation president Thor Halvorssen said in a statement, referring to the crown prince by his initials.
“Now the United States and the European Union must urgently place sanctions on MBS himself, along with those within his direct chain-of-command who were involved in the murder.”
Prince Mohammed has denied having knowledge of the plot against Khashoggi in the aftermath of his death but said in a 2019 interview he accepted responsibility for the killing happening under his watch.
While the Saudi Foreign Ministry on Friday reacted with outrage over the release of the report, rejecting the findings that implicates the Kingdom’s leadership, it also reiterated its commitment to the U.S. and Saudi relationship, calling it a “robust and enduring partnership.”
Regional experts say the Biden administration is balancing trying to show a tougher hand while preserving a critical relationship with the Gulf ally.
“There is this agenda that the Biden administration has of seeking an early breakthrough with Iran and early progress toward ending the Yemen war as major priorities,” said Ibish, of the Gulf Arab Institute. “In both those cases Saudi cooperation would be needed, directly in Yemen and indirectly with Iran.”
Varsha Koduvayur, a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Treasury sanction of al Asiri is an important move in targeting a key individual and called the visa restrictions announced by the State Department “well intentioned.”
“Ultimately the administration is signalling that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is too vital to tear asunder,” she said.
The refrain from imposing punitive actions on the crown prince is a recognition of broader U.S. strategy in the region and the important role he will continue to play, added Satloff of the Washington Institute.
“Threading the needle in foreign policy is challenging, with partners no less so than with adversaries, and this is a classic example of trying to achieve that elusive goal,” he said.