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Biden, Saudi king hold first phone call ahead of release of Khashoggi report

US president affirms support for kingdom’s security in face of Iran-backed attacks, underlines importance of human rights; readout makes no mention of 2018 killing of reporter

US Vice President Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)
US Vice President Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

US President Joe Biden reaffirmed the US commitment to Saudi Arabia’s defense but stressed the importance of human rights Thursday in a long-delayed first call with Saudi King Salman, the White House said.

They discussed “the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups,” a statement said.

However, Biden also “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law” in the call, which came over a month after Biden entered office.

The conversation was overshadowed by the expected imminent release of US findings on whether the Saudi king’s son approved the October 2, 2018, killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s authoritarian consolidation of power, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. US intelligence agencies concluded in 2018 that the prince likely ordered the killing, a finding reported by news media but never officially released.

In this file photo taken on May 31, 2019 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the extraordinary Arab summit held at al-Safa Royal Palace in Mecca. (BANDAR ALDANDANI / AFP)

A White House readout of the call made no mention of the killing or the report.

The White House said Biden on Thursday discussed with King Salman the two countries’ “longstanding partnership” and welcomed the kingdom’s recent releases of an advocate for women’s rights and some of its other political detainees.

The language came in contrast to Biden’s pledge as a candidate to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” over the killing. The White House offered no immediate explanation for his milder tone with the king.

The prince’s critics, including a rights group founded by the slain journalist, want him to make good on that pledge with sanctions or other tough actions targeting and isolating the prince. They fear Biden will go with condemnation instead, eschewing a lasting standoff with the likely future ruler of an important, but often difficult, US strategic ally, valued both for its oil reserves and its status as a counterbalance to Iran in the Middle East.

The killing drew bipartisan outrage. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said Thursday he hopes Biden talks to the king ”very straight about it, and very emphatically, and says that this is not acceptable.” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said he understood the administration to be considering new sanctions to accompany release of the report. “So it’s a day of reckoning, but one that’s long overdue.”

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2011. (AP /Virginia Mayo, File)

The report’s findings, and Biden’s resulting next steps, at a minimum will set the administration’s tone for dealing with the ambitious 35-year-old prince.

Critics blame Mohammed bin Salman for the kingdom’s imprisonment and alleged torture of peaceful rights advocates, businesspeople and other royals at home and for launching a devastating war in neighboring Yemen and a failed economic blockade against neighboring Qatar, among other actions.

Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated power rapidly since his father, Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, in his 80s, became king in 2015. Salman is one of the last living sons of modern Saudi Arabia’s original founder.

Given his age and Saudi royals’ longevity, the prince could rule for the next half-century, if he follows his aging father to the throne.

“This was in the span of two or three years — just imagine what will happen in the next 40 years if they allow him to rule,” Abdullah al Oudh, a Saudi man who has received asylum in the United States after Saudi Arabia imprisoned al Oudh’s father in 2017 over a tweet urging Saudi reconciliation with Qatar, said Thursday.

“This guy … sees the world as a stage for his botched operations,” said Oudh, a Gulf research director for Democracy for the Arab World Now, a rights group Khashoggi founded shortly before his murder.

In this photo from November 16, 2018, members of Arab-Turkish Media Association and friends of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi hold posters showing images of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman and of Khashoggi, as they attend funeral prayers in absentia for him following his killing the previous month in the Saudi Arabia consulate, in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel, File)

The Saudi Arabia Embassy spokesman in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Saudi officials have said Khashoggi’s killing was the work of rogue Saudi security and intelligence officials.

The prince said in 2019 he took “full responsibility” for the killing since it happened on his watch, but denied ordering it.

US intelligence findings are coming out more than two years after Khashoggi walked hand-in-hand with his fiancee to the Saudi consulate in Turkey. He planned to pick up documents for their wedding.

The errand was recorded by surveillance cameras that tracked his route and those of his alleged killers in Istanbul in the hours leading up to his killing.

Inside the consulate, Khashoggi died at the hands of more than a dozen Saudi security and intelligence officials and others who had assembled ahead of his arrival.

A Turkish bug planted at the embassy reportedly captured the sound of a forensic saw, operated by a Saudi military colonel who was also a forensics expert, carving up Khashoggi’s body within an hour of his entering the building. The whereabouts of his remains remain unknown.

Much of the damage from the killing of Khashoggi, a gregarious and well-regarded Saudi journalist with influential supporters in the United States and around the world, has already been absorbed by the US-Saudi relationship.

Once in office, Biden said he would maintain whatever scale of relations with Saudi Arabia that US interests required. He also ordered an end to US support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and said he would stop the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. He’s given few details of what weapons and support he meant.

Asked how the release of the findings would affect Biden’s approach toward Saudi Arabia, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that a range of options were on the table.

“There are areas where we will express concerns and leave open the option of accountability,” Psaki said. “There are also areas where we will continue to work with Saudi Arabia, given the threats they face in the region.”

Congress in 2019 demanded the release of the report’s findings, but the Trump administration refused. The Biden administration agreed to release a declassified version.

Saudi Arabian courts last year announced they had sentenced eight Saudi nationals to prison in Khashoggi’s killing. They were not identified.

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