The imminent release of a U.S. intelligence report into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi will serve as the first major test of the Biden administration’s promise to recalibrate relations with Riyadh.
The report’s release is widely expected as early as Friday after Joe Biden held talks with Saudi Arabia’s leader King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on Thursday for the first time since taking office, lifting one of the last obstacles set by the White House to make it public. .
The Biden administration’s promise to reset U.S. relations with the Gulf Kingdom – whose leaders have had close ties to Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump – could be complicated by the extent to which the unclassified version of the report involves Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the death of Khashoggi.
UN officials have previously concluded that there is “credible evidence” that the king’s favorite son and heir was responsible for the 2018 Khashoggi murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and several US lawmakers have claims there was “no doubt” about the involvement of the crown prince. Prince Mohammed took “full responsibility” for the murder as one of the rulers of the kingdom, but denied ordering the murder, which he called a “heinous crime”.
While Biden has promised before To make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and put human rights at the forefront of its foreign policy, some of its key collaborators also warned against the personal sanction of Prince Mohammed for his alleged link with the murder. They argued that it would sever a relationship that the United States still sees as crucial to its regional priorities, including ending the war in Yemen and re-engagement with Iran.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters earlier Thursday that a “series of actions. . . are on the table ”.
Two people in contact with administration officials said Washington’s response could include a combination of actions by the US Treasury and the US State Department, including sanctions and visa restrictions for other appointees. in the report.
The United States’ exact answer is “the $ 64,000 question,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former senior State Department official under the Obama administration who worked on the Middle East.
Bruce Riedel, a former specialist CIA officer in Saudi Arabia, said he felt “considerable division” within the Biden administration over what response it should take.
“Supposing [the report] clearly states that MBS is a murderer so how can we not punish him?
The Trump administration has already sanctioned 17 Saudi officials, but the former president ultimately stood by Prince Mohammed and did not release the intelligence report, despite being legally required to do so.
Chris Murphy, a prominent Democratic senator from Connecticut, told MSNBC on Thursday that he wanted “a much broader set of accountability measures” for anyone involved in the murder, citing financial penalties and withdrawals visa. He is one of a number of members of Congress who have called on the United States to take tougher action against the kingdom.
Khashoggi’s murder was “impossible” without the knowledge or direction of Prince Mohammed, who is also the kingdom’s defense minister, Murphy said.
The White House has previously said Biden will not speak directly to Prince Mohammed, whose direct counterpart is US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, but is keen to preserve relations between the countries. According to a White House reading of Thursday’s conversation, Biden told King Salman he wanted to “make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible.”
If Biden’s team judges that sanctioning Prince Mohammed could backfire, they could instead “try to snub him or limit his role in the bilateral relationship,” said Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Tamara Wittes, an expert from the Brookings Institution, suggested that the United States could expel Saudi diplomats because the murder took place at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in violation of the Vienna convention. But she added that Riyadh could also avoid the harsher penalties by taking more responsibility for the crime.
“I don’t realistically think this is blacklisting the crown prince of Saudi Arabia,” she said. “The ball is in the Saudi court to take full responsibility.”