Even without the acknowledgement of the Saudi Heir’s involvement in the Khashoggi murder, Biden’s decision to engage with King Salman and not MBS drives home the point.
The Joe Biden Administration released an unclassified intelligence report on Friday February 26, 2021, on the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist who was perhaps the most prominent critic of Saudi Arabia, and crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Khashoggi was murdered in 2018 in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The Central Investigation Agency (CIA) had provided strong evidence to suggest that MBS had ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Former President Donald Trump refused to take any action against Saudi Arabia and also rejected a demand from the US Congress to release the report. Trump drew scathing criticism from many including Biden for his decision.
The Promised Release of the Report
In November 2019, Biden had said that the US would make the Saudis pay a price for the killing of Khashoggi. To quote Biden,
We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.Joe Biden
The release of this report thus did not come as a surprise. It would be pertinent to point out that even before the release of the report, the Biden Administration has taken some steps vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia; this includes a review of arms deals signed during the Trump Administration (in a statement the State Department dubbed this as a ‘routine’ measure) and end of US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Days before the release of the report, the Biden administration also announced that Biden would interact with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and not MBS. The US President had spoken to the Saudi King a day before the release of the report. According to a White House release, Biden ‘affirmed the importance “the US” places on universal human rights and the rule of law’.
Watch: The CIA report released by Biden Administration proves Crown Prince MBS’ role in Khashoggi Murder
Implications on Saudi-US Relations
The key questions on the minds of analysts were; first, how the decision to release this report will impact Saudi-US relations, and second, whether sanctions will be imposed directly on Mohammed Bin Salman or not.
It is true, that Biden has been critical of MBS and accused Trump of being soft on Saudi Arabia. However, the Biden Administration has refrained from imposing sanctions on the crown prince. Sanctions have been imposed on 76 officials responsible for harassing journalists and activists. The reason cited by officials in the Biden Administration for not imposing sanctions is that US-Saudi ties would be impacted adversely in case such a step was taken.
In an interview on Friday, Biden did state that during his conversation with the Saudi King, Human Rights was high on the agenda. The US President also said, ‘the rules are changing and we’re going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday.’
Reasons for Biden’s Calibrated Approach
US officials cited two reasons for the Biden Administration not going all out. First, the Saudi-US security relationship is important and Washington can not afford to allow a rise in bilateral tensions. Senior US officials stated that the US Saudi bilateral relationship was more important than individuals.
Second, when the US begins negotiations with Iran, for the Joint Comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA), it will need Saudi support (Saudi Arabia had stated a few months ago that it should be consulted in case the US decides to engage).
Third, the attempts of the Crown Prince to modernize; especially empowering women, limiting the influence of clerics can not be ignored by the US. The imposition of sanctions directly on MBS may not send the right message.
In recent years, a number of big US corporates have also been impressed by economic reforms initiated by MBS (many CEO’s spoke at the recent Future Investment Initiative also dubbed as the Davos of the desert) and while they may not have a veto over US foreign policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, the Biden Administration can not ignore them.
To sum it up, Biden’s decision to not impose sanctions on MBS may have disappointed many Biden supporters, but by releasing the report which points to the involvement of MBS in the Khashoggi murder, and bluntly putting forth US concerns with regard to the Human Rights record of Saudi Arabia, the US President has sent a strong message.
Biden Administration’s earlier decision, that the US President will engage with King Salman and not MBS also drives home the point, that the US-Saudi relationship driven by personal chemistry during the Trump Administration will be more structured under the current dispensation. At the same time, Riyadh is important for Washington from a security context, and no administration including Biden’s can lose sight of the same. Biden Administration, while realizing the relevance of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, is unlikely to relegate issues pertaining to Human Rights to the sidelines.