US intelligence report accuses murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the feet of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman raises serious questions about the future of US-Saudi relations.
Countries have long been strategic allies, with Washington viewing Riyadh as a pivot of its broader Middle East strategy and as an influential ally both in the so-called “war on terror” and in the international market for fossil fuels.
But the findings of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) report, which concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince approved the operation that resulted in Khashoggi’s death, will put pressure on US President Joe Biden to keep his promise to reassess the US-Saudi relationship.
Former President Donald Trump has maintained close ties with Riyadh, and in particular MBS, the country’s de facto leader, despite Khashoggi’s assassination by a Saudi squad at the Istanbul consulate in October 2018.
Saudi officials have denied the crown prince was involved in the murder, instead blaming rogue agents for what happened. When asked in a 2019 interview with the CBS 60 Minutes program if he ordered the murder, MBS responded: “Absolutely not”.
He accepted political responsibility, however, saying “it happened under my leadership.”
Congress passed a defense bill in December 2019 that included a provision requiring the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to issue an unclassified report on Khashoggi’s murder within 30 days.
But the Trump administration has refused to release the full report on Khashoggi, telling lawmakers that disclosure of the information would compromise the sources and methods of the National Intelligence Bureau.
Trump has also personally rejected calls to reprimand MBS for the murder, including from leading Republican lawmakers. He later would have told reporter Bob Woodward that he had “saved” the crown prince from US lawmakers.
Yet even with the report’s release on Friday, The Biden administration and the Saudi government will be cautious, said Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, noting that neither is likely to want to stray too far from their ties. tactics.
“But now Washington has the upper hand,” he told Al Jazeera.
“By making this report accessible, they say to Saudi Arabia: ‘You must be positive about the war in Yemen, you must be positive about human rights, including the release of prisoners. political “.”
Yet Andreas Krieg, professor in the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London, said the Saudi-American relationship has been “one of the pillars of American policy in the Middle East and continues to play an important role in the projection of American power ”.
“While Saudi Arabia will not be as much of a priority as [it was] under the Trump administration, Washington needs Saudi Arabia as a partner in the region, ”he said.
Riyadh is also unlikely to be willing to drastically move away from the United States and look to other possible strategic allies – including Russia and China, Zweiri said.
Saudi Arabia has long been America’s largest importer of arms and has entered into several defense contracts with the United States, which include the maintenance and support of its vast defense apparatus. Switching to a new system would take “at least two decades,” Zweiri said.
“In reality, [Riyadh] may be able to move to other countries politically – they may open up – but they are unlikely to close the chapter. “
US intelligence report is first since Khashoggi murder to directly link MBS to death, but he is far from the only one to involve the crown prince.
A June 2019 report by Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, determined the assassination order came from the highest levels of the Saudi government. The report also said “credible evidence” existed to justify an investigation into the “individual responsibility” of senior officials and members of the royal family – including MBS.
Zweiri said the Biden administration will likely monitor domestic and international responses to the report before deciding what action, if any, to take on its findings.
The report comes amid a “background wave of anti-Saudi sentiment in Congress,” said Steven Wright, a professor at Bin Khalifa University in Doha who focuses on US policy in the Gulf, and implications of this “should not be underestimated in the least. “.
Legislation offers In the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, calling for sanctions against the Saudi royal family and a halt to most US arms sales to the country, he had received bipartisan support, but had not been subjected to a full vote of the Senate during the last session of Congress. The United States had previously sanctioned 17 Saudi nationals linked to the murder.
Now, tougher action by Congress is not out of the question. “It’s kind of a watershed moment where there is potential for a change in the relationship,” Wright said.
‘A signal being sent’
Already, White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said Biden will only correspond to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, not the Crown Prince.
Biden got his first call as chairman of the 85-year-old monarch on Thursday, more than a month since taking office. The White House said it highlighted the country’s “long-standing partnership” while affirming “the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”
The Biden administration also Cut US support and arms sales are tied to the “offensive operations” of a Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen, as it increasingly advocates for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. The United States has said it will continue to offer support for Saudi defense.
The White House announced on Friday that it would announce new measures regarding Saudi Arabia.
While the Saudi royal family is likely to feel political pressure, the report is unlikely to cause any upheaval in the Saudi line of succession, said PJ Crowley, who served as deputy secretary of state for public affairs under the former President Barack Obama.
“MBS remains likely to be a future king, and he will be a king for a very long time,” Crowley told Al Jazeera.
“But I think there is a signal sent here that if he wants to enjoy the confidence of the United States in the future, then he has to show himself as the kind of leader that the United States can comfortably work with.” .
However, he noted that the absence of a broader regional threat, combined with the Biden administration’s willingness to re-engage diplomatically with Iran and move away from fossil fuels, means that “the region is not as important to the United States as it once was ”- and could push the United States to take a tougher line on human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.
“Where the United States was willing to look elsewhere in the past,” Crowley said, “I think it’s less inclined to do it now.”