Human rights advocates and congressional Democrats have decried the Biden administration’s decision not to impose sanctions on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after a newly-declassified American intelligence report confirmed that he had directly approved the assassination of US-based dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said failure by President Joe Biden, who called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state on the 2020 campaign trail, to penalize bin Salman was “unconscionable.”
“The fact that the US has sanctioned so many of MBS’s associates but not him sends a terrible message that the higher up in a government you are, the more likely it is you can commit crimes with impunity,” Prasow told the Middle East Eye news portal.
“It also undermines US credibility. It’s hard to see what incentive MBS has to alter his conduct, whether inside Saudi Arabia, in his conduct in the war in Yemen, or in other extraterritorial attacks on dissidents, when he knows he can literally get away with murder.”
Citing senior administration officials, The New York Times reported on Friday that President Biden has decided that the “diplomatic cost” of penalizing Prince Mohammed for ordering the hit on Khashoggi, a palace insider who later became a prominent critic of MBS, would be too high.
The decision came after weeks of debate in which Biden’s new national security team advised the president against barning MBS from entering the United States or considering criminal charges against the prince.
White House officials pondering the matter have eventually reached a consensus that taking any action against the Saudi royals would be impossible without breaching the historically strong US alliance with the oil-rich kingdom, officials told the Times.
The decision, which has already put Biden’s decision-making as president and his campaign promises into sharp relief, has disappointed human rights advocates and members of his own party, who had applauded Biden for making public the much-anticipated intelligence report on the Khashoggi murder case.
“The Biden administration is trying to thread the needle. They want to continue to work with a partner that has committed a heinous act against a US resident, while taking some steps toward accountability,” Seth Binder, advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told MEE.
“But if human rights is really going to be at the center of US foreign policy, as the administration has repeatedly stated, then it can’t give murderers a free pass,” he said.
During his presidential campaign, Biden promised to “reassess” US relations with Saudi Arabia, which he said has “no redeeming social value.” Since taking office on January 20, he has suspended some arms sales to Riyadh and announced an end to Washington’s support for the Saudi-led military aggression in Yemen.
Still, many rights advocates and members of Congress are demanding a more forceful approach to the oil-rich kingdom and Prince Mohammed, who practically had carte blanche to carry out his aggressive domestic and foreign policy agenda during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“We’re calling on the Biden administration to move ahead with accountability measures to sanction MBS personally, along with everyone else who is implicated in that killing,” said Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
Rights advocates had hoped that the Biden administration would, at a minimum, impose the same travel restrictions on bin Salman that his predecessor, Trump, had imposed on others involved in the murder plot.
The newly declassified intelligence report from the director of national intelligence says bin Salman, widely considered the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, directly approved the killing of Khashoggi, who was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 and brutally murdered inside by a Saudi hit squad.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said the report, which was submitted to the US Congress.
Riyadh has strenuously denied any role by bin Salman or other senior officials in the Khashoggi operation. It initially claimed that Khashoggi had left the consulate unharmed. But as international pressure mounted and the cover story began to collapse, it later said that the journalist had been killed by a “rogue” group.
‘A turning point in US-Saudi ties’
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats also urged President Biden to impose sanctions on MBS.
Calling the release of the Khashoggi report a turning point in US-Saudi ties, Rep. Ilhan Omar said on Friday that she will be introducing legislation to penalize the crown prince. She called the release of the assessment a “turning point” in US-Saudi relations.
“To this day, we continue to supply Saudi Arabia with US arms that are used to commit human rights abuses around the world,” the congresswoman said in a statement.
“To this day, we still cooperate with the Saudi regime on defensive war efforts – including intelligence sharing. These must end. And there must be direct consequences for Mohammed bin Salman and his functionaries,” the Muslim lawmaker from Minnesota added.
‘MBS has blood on his hands’
Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, hailed the release of the intelligence assessment, but said the administration did not go far enough in holding the Saudi crown prince accountable.
He said it was not acceptable to simply go after those who carried out the assassination, but not the leader who actually ordered the operation.
“The report itself is pretty remarkable in saying in no uncertain terms that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia ordered the capture or killing of an American resident and journalist, that essentially the crown prince has blood on his hands,” Schiff told CNN.
Senator Ron Wyden also underscored the need for Prince Mohammed to be penalized for his role in the murder, calling on the Biden administration to ensure the kingdom “follows international laws.”
“By naming Mohammed bin Salman as the amoral murderer responsible for this heinous crime, the Biden-Harris administration is beginning to finally reassess America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and make clear that oil won’t wash away blood,” he said in a statement.
Denying that the administration was giving Saudi Arabia a pass, Biden’s aides told the Times that they were considering a series of new actions on lower-level Saudi officials intended to penalize the Saudi military and impose new measures against the kingdom for its human rights abuses.
Those actions include a travel ban on Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, who was deeply involved in the Khashoggi operation, and on the Rapid Intervention Force, a unit of the Saudi Royal Guard that protects Prince Mohammed.
The Trump administration acted against 17 members of that team, imposing travel bans and other penalties.
In an apparent attempt to divert criticism from his decision not to punish Prince Mohammed, Biden said on Friday that he would hold Saudi Arabia accountable.
In an interview with Univision, Biden detailed a conversation he had with Saudi King Salman, in which he emphasized that the US would push Riyadh to honor human rights amid lingering criticism over the Khashoggi case.
“I spoke yesterday with the king, not the prince. Made it clear to him that the rules are changing and we’re going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday. We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses,” Biden said.
The remarks came as bipartisan members of Congress call for a realignment of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabi over the Khashoggi case and the Saudi-led offensive against Yemen, which, according to the United Nations, has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.