Senate

Democrats pressure Biden to confront Saudi leader on Khashoggi murder

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President Biden has made a point of disparaging Saudi Arabia’s crown prince for his role in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Democratic senators are raising concerns over President Biden’s scheduled meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and urging the president to confront the Saudi leader about his alleged role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  

The White House wouldn’t say before the meeting whether Biden would bring up Khashoggi with the crown prince. Democratic senators say that he should do so, and also raise the issue of Saudi Arabia’s track record on human rights more generally.  

Democratic senators are speaking up at a time when Republicans are criticizing Biden for asking the Saudis to release more oil into the international markets amid high inflation and expensive gas prices.  

“We need to meet with Saudi Arabia, he shouldn’t meet with MBS. That’s my strong belief,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  

“That doesn’t mean he couldn’t meet with the king, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t meet with the foreign minister, other officials. But I would not meet with MBS, the guy still has blood on his hands from the murder of a Washington Post journalist who lived in Virginia, who has family in Virginia. There hasn’t been accountability for it,” he said.  

Kaine said meeting with an authoritarian leader with a bad human rights record sounds an off-key note at a time when Biden has rallied the world to help Ukraine resist the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin, another authoritarian leader.  

“Meeting with a dictator who killed a journalist, I don’t get it,” Kaine said of the meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad, adding that Biden “absolutely” should broach Khashoggi’s murder.  

The CIA concluded in 2018 that the crown prince had ordered the assassination of Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. This assessment was confirmed in an intelligence report released by the Biden administration last year.  

Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, frequently criticized the Saudi government and allied hard-line religious leaders.  

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), another member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he also has concerns about Biden sitting down with the crown prince.  

“He should bring up the Khashoggi murder. He should bring up other human rights issues on this visit,” he said. “I understand why the president wants to make this visit, but he should bring up a whole range of issues.” 

Van Hollen acknowledged he does “have some concerns about the trip.” 

“But I understand the president’s objectives,” he said. “I think the jury’s still out on whether or not this is going to be a successful visit because it depends on what the outcome is.”  

Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state during the 2020 campaign and pledged at the time to hold it accountable for its human rights record.  

But now the president finds himself in an awkward position as high gas prices have contributed to inflation. He needs Saudi Arabia’s help to increase the international oil supply at a time when the United States and Europe have boycotted Russian oil exports over its invasion of Ukraine. 

Biden will meet with Crown Prince Mohammad in a bilateral meeting as part of his first official trip to the Middle East.  

Khashoggi’s widow, Hanan Khashoggi, said Wednesday that she expected Biden to talk about her husband’s murder after she said the administration assured her it would be a topic of discussion.  

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee who is close to Biden, expressed confidence that the president would make good on that promise.  

“I think he will. President Biden has a very strong record on human rights over decades and I am confident that he knows full well the importance of making clear our profound differences over human rights across many different contexts and instances, from the war in Yemen to domestic issues to the very specific and horrifying murder of a U.S.-based journalist,” Coons said.  

Biden, speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem on Thursday, said he’s “never been quiet about talking about human rights” but said the reason for his trip to Saudi Arabia “is much broader, it’s to promote U.S. interests.”

Two of Biden’s 2020 campaign rivals, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a joint resolution in the Senate Thursday to direct the removal of U.S. troops from any proximity to the war in Yemen between a Saudi-backed coalition and the Houthi rebels.  

The senators identified a Saudi naval blockade of Yemen’s ports as causing a humanitarian disaster. 

“This war has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis today, and it is past time to end U.S. complicity in those horrors. Let us pass this resolution so we can focus on diplomacy to end this war,” Sanders said in a statement.  

Crown Prince Mohammad played a central role in launching the war in Yemen in 2015, expecting the Houthis to be defeated quickly. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) noted that Biden will be meeting with other senior Saudi officials in addition to the crown prince but also said it’s important for the president to talk about the importance of respecting human rights.  

“He has to bring up our human rights concerns and he has to make that clear,” he said.  

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last month that Biden “is not afraid to talk tough with foreign leaders.”  

“So I have every confidence that President Biden will handle this very well,” he said.  

But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said there will be many issues to discuss with Saudi leaders and that a discussion over human rights won’t take over the meeting.  

“He should bring up human rights, democracy issues, of course,” he said. 

But he added “the reality is the president has a big agenda.” 

“It’s about creating a bulwark against Iran, it’s about creating peace among countries, it’s about deepening our ties with Israel and it’s about creating energy stability,” Menendez said.  

“In the midst of all of that,” talking about the Khashoggi murder and human rights “is part of the challenge he has meeting with MBS,” he said.  

Tags Biden Chris Van Hollen Jamal Khashoggi Jamal Khashoggi Mohammad bin Salman Saudi Arabia Tim Kaine
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