Biden signals ‘significant changes’ in US-Saudi ties

In call with King Salman preceding release of US intel report on Khashoggi murder, US president says Riyadh must deal with human rights violations

President Joe Biden pauses to speak with reporters as he walks to Marine One for departure from the South Lawn of the White House, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, in Washington. Biden is en route to Camp David. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Joe Biden pauses to speak with reporters as he walks to Marine One for departure from the South Lawn of the White House, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, in Washington. Biden is en route to Camp David. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

US President Joe Biden warned Saudi Arabia’s King Salman this week that changes were in the offing and that the kingdom would be held accountable for human rights violations. The conversation preceded the release on Friday of a US intelligence report which said that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — a key figure in the US-Saudi relationship — “approved” the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The prince, who is de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and due to take over from the ailing King Salman, “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the US report said.

In an interview with Univision on Friday, Biden made clear he spoke to the 85-year-old king the previous day, not the prince, and indicated that there would be a break from the Trump administration in how his White House would deal with Riyadh. “The rules are changing,” said Biden, and the US will be announcing “significant changes” in the coming days.

“I spoke to the king yesterday, not the prince. I made it clear to him that the rules are changing, and we are going to be announcing significant changes today and Monday. We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses and make sure that, in fact, if they want to deal with us, they have to do it in a way where human rights abuses are dealt with. And we are trying to do that all over the world, but particularly here,” Biden told Univision.

Biden had ordered that a declassified version of the report on Khashoggi’s killing — first completed under Trump — be released as part of a reset in which Washington is distancing itself from Prince Mohammed.

“This report has been sitting there; the last administration did not even release it. Immediately when I got in, we found the report, we read it, we got it and released it, we published it today [Friday], and it is outrageous what happened,” Biden told Univision on Friday.

Khashoggi, a staunch critic of Prince Mohammed, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 and murdered by a Saudi squad.

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

The US report said that given Prince Mohammed’s influence, it was “highly unlikely” that the murder could have taken place without his green light. Washington had been widely expected to impose new sanctions on Saudis seen as connected to the prince — although not directly against Prince Mohammed himself. He has broadly accepted Saudi Arabia’s responsibility but denies any personal involvement.

The Treasury Department announced Friday it was freezing assets and criminalizing transactions with a former intelligence official as well as the Rapid Intervention Force, an elite unit the report said “exists to defend the crown prince” and “answers only to him.”

But the US stopped short of directly targeting the 35-year-old prince, known by his initials MBS.

Biden has indicated that he had no intention of speaking to the prince.

In this photo from November 27, 2018, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pictured while meeting with the Tunisian president at the presidential palace in Carthage, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

In the call with the king, the White House said that Biden emphasized the countries’ security ties and “the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups.”

However, in a shift from the Trump era, Biden also “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”

Saudi Arabia has previously said the murder was a rogue operation and has vehemently denied the crown prince was involved.

On Friday, Riyadh rejected the US report and the “negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the kingdom’s leadership,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.

“The kingdom rejects any measure that infringes upon its leadership, sovereignty, and the independence of its judicial system,” the ministry added.

Fatal consulate appointment

A veteran Saudi journalist and editor, Khashoggi was in self-exile and residing in the United States, writing articles critical of the crown prince when he was assassinated on October 2, 2018.

The writer had been told by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States to go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul if he wanted to obtain documents for his forthcoming marriage to a Turkish woman, Hatice Cengiz.

There, the 59-year-old was killed and his body dismembered by a team sent from Riyadh under the direction of a top aide to Prince Mohammed, Saud al-Qahtani.

Just one month after the murder, the US Central Intelligence Agency concluded with high confidence that Prince Mohammed had ordered the assassination, according to The Washington Post.

This image taken from CCTV video purportedly shows Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, October 2, 2018.(CCTV/TRT World via AP)

But, determined to maintain strong relations with Riyadh, Trump refused to publicly hold the Saudi strongman responsible, even as the US government demanded the perpetrators be punished.

The published intelligence report asserts that the 15 people sent to target Khashoggi in Turkey included members of Prince Mohammed’s “elite personal protective detail,” the Rapid Intervention Force.

According to The Washington Post, US intelligence also discovered a phone call from Prince Mohammed to his brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, in which Prince Mohammed gave instructions for luring Khashoggi to Istanbul.

Another piece of evidence was a recording of the murder obtained by Turkish intelligence from inside the Istanbul consulate. This helped identify the participants and showed communications between them and Riyadh.

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