Khashoggi killing report prompts calls for penalties against Saudi Crown Prince
The release of a US intelligence report finding that Saudi Arabia's crown prince had approved the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is prompting calls for penalties against the man next in line to the Saudi throne.
The report, released Friday, found that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — whose involvement was widely suspected — had approved the operation to kill Khashoggi at the country's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted that Biden should "ensure that repercussions for the brutal murder of Khashoggi go beyond those who carried it out, to the one who ordered it."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the report an "appropriate first step" but said he hoped for "concrete measures" against Salman "for his role in this heinous crime."
"The United States must send a clear signal to our allies and adversaries alike that fundamental values, including respect for basic human rights and human dignity, drive US foreign policy," Menendez said in statement.
Similarly, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said he was "encouraged to see the new administration taking steps" toward accountability for the death of Khashoggi, who was a Virginia resident.
On the Republican side, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul of Texas said the US "must ensure everyone involved in this appalling crime is held accountable – including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose role in this murder has now been publicly affirmed."
The White House has said Biden plans to "recalibrate" the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki has also said Biden plans to conduct business with the kingdom "counterpart to counterpart" with the Saudi head of state, King Salman.
Though not officially the king, Mohammed bin Salman is considered Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler and controls the kingdom's intelligence and security services.
In an interview with Univision on Friday, Biden said he had spoken to King Salman Thursday and made it clear that "the rules are changing." Biden said changes to the relationship would be announced Monday.
"We're going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses, and we're going to make sure that they, in fact, you know, if they want to deal with us, they have to deal with it in a way that human rights abuses are dealt with. And we're trying to do that across the world, but particularly here," Biden told anchor Ilia Calderón.
An editorial from The Washington Post applauds several of Biden's actions to reset the intensely cozy relationship Saudi Arabia enjoyed with Trump. The editorial goes on to suggest that under Biden, the US-Saudi relationship may resemble what it did before Trump, "when the kingdom was treated as a prime US ally in the Middle East." The editorial cites continued weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and a recent call between Salman and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.
"Mr Biden is nevertheless granting what amounts to a pass to a ruler who has sown instability around the Middle East in recent years while presiding over the most severe repression of dissent in modern Saudi history," the Post editorial board writes.
The Post noted that under US law, Salman should be banned from travelling to the US and have his assets frozen.
The Society of Professional Journalists called the intelligence report "too little too late," adding that "the crown prince should have already been held accountable." The group said Biden should send the message "that the killing of a journalist is unacceptable anywhere on this planet."
New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof, a friend of Khashoggi, minced no words in his column, calling Salman a murderer and saying Biden appeared "ready to let the murderer walk."
The Saudi government has rejected the findings of the US intelligence report.
US in delicate balancing act
Washington did not slap any direct sanctions on Prince Salman, known by his initials MBS, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken explaining that Biden wants to "recalibrate" but not "rupture" its relations with Riyadh, a longstanding Middle East partner.
"This is not the Saudi smack-down that many" expected, said Varsha Koduvayur, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington think-tank.
It indicates "Biden's overall Saudi stance: put values at the heart of US foreign policy, emphasise human rights, and reverse the transactional approach of last four years (under Trump) -- while preserving the relationship," Koduvayur added.
- Call for sanctions -
The Washington-based campaign group Freedom House said it was "disappointing and frustrating that the US is yet unwilling to act on its own intelligence" and impose sanctions on the Saudi prince.
"We expect nothing less than justice for Jamal Khashoggi and all of Saudi Arabia's brave dissidents," said the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, which produced "The Dissident", a critically acclaimed documentary on the journalist's murder. "The United States and the European Union must urgently place sanctions on MBS himself."
But seemingly unfazed by the claims, MBS was shown on Saudi television Saturday attending a Formula E race on the outskirts of Riyadh.
Saudi observers have dismissed the highly anticipated report, with Ali Shihabi, a government adviser close to the kingdom's royal court, saying the "thin" assessment lacked a "smoking gun".
Soon after the report was made public, the Arabic hashtag "We are all MBS" began trending on Twitter, with pro-government cyber armies tweeting in support of the Saudi heir apparent.
The Saudi leadership is "untouchable", screamed a front page headline in the pro-government Okaz newspaper, which denounced the report.
- Preserving ties -
Biden had pledged during his campaign to make the kingdom a "pariah" after it got a free pass under Trump, but observers say he is instead adopting a middle path.
While scrutinising human rights, his new administration is working to preserve a valuable security partnership as it moves to reboot nuclear talks with Riyadh's arch-enemy Tehran.
Biden also needs to deal with the top crude producer on the highly fraught issues of energy, counterterrorism, and efforts to end the conflict in Yemen.
"The Biden foreign policy team is comprised of seasoned experts who are not so naive as to think that they can achieve their goals in the Middle East without dealing with a Saudi state that still anchors, though in a less totalising way, both oil and security in the Gulf," said Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
"For this reason, they have ruled out the sanctioning of Mohammed bin Salman, preserving space to deal with the Saudi state and its top leadership."
Still, in what could serve as a strong deterrent, Washington on Friday announced the "Khashoggi Act" that will ban entry into the US of foreigners who threaten dissidents and placed 76 Saudis on the blacklist.
Recent official statements from Washington have called Saudi Arabia a "security partner", instead of what the Trump administration highlighted as an "ally" and a key buyer of US military hardware.
In an apparent snub earlier this week, Biden insisted on making his first Saudi phone call to 85-year-old King Salman, even as Saudi pro-government supporters insisted that his son, Prince Mohammed, was the kingdom's day-to-day ruler.
"Washington realises that MBS could go on to rule Saudi Arabia for the next half century, so it cannot afford to completely alienate him," a Western diplomat told AFP. "But it is also making clear that it will no longer give him a free pass."–Agencies