Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has personally been blamed in a report released by President Joe Biden’s administration for the brazen assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for US media.
The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) made public on Friday underpins a shift in Middle East Policy by Biden away from the historically very close ties with the kingdom but also shows the limits.
The report’s release came a day after Biden had ordered airstrikes on militias in Syria that are backed by the Saudi’s nemesis Iran, showing how difficult reworking policies in the region is.
A few days earlier, Biden had removed the sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump on the Iran-backed Houthi rebels fighting the Saudi-supported government in Yemen.
Biden, who has tried to make human rights the centrepiece of his foreign policy, is facing the compulsions of realpolitik when it comes to dealing with influential middling countries like Saudi Arabia, leave alone powers like China or Russia.
During a debate of candidates for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Biden attacked Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder and said that he would make the kingdom pay the “price” and make it a “pariah”.
But now in power, he finds he cannot go that far even as he recalibrates ties with it, while trapped between Riyadh and Teheran.
Salman himself escaped US retribution for the killing of Khashoggi, a permanent resident of the US and a columnist for the influential Washington Post, but instead the State and Treasury departments took separate actions against other Saudis.
This enables the Biden administration to continue working with Riyadh as he is the equivalent of a head of government and it cannot afford break with the regime.
Biden has gone only as far as refusing to talk to Salman citing protocol which places him lower than a president and insisting on talking only with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, even though he is not actively running the country.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a policy of “Khashoggi Ban” against those acting on behalf of governments to attack activists abroad and in the first action he imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudis.
He said that they were “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing”.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced sanctions on former Saudi intelligence chief Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri and the country’s Rapid Intervention Force (RIF) freezing their assets in the US and barring anyone from doing business with them.
“The United States stands united with journalists and political dissidents in opposing threats of violence and intimidation,” she said.
Democratic Party’s leaders in Congress were not satisfied with these actions and called on Biden to go further.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez said he wanted the administration to “take concrete measures holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for his role in this heinous crime”.
Adam Schiff, the head of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee said that the repercussion for the murder should “go beyond those who carried it out, to the one who ordered it — the Crown Prince himself”.
The four-page executive summary of the ODNI report, which had several words, including one on its title page, blacked out declared, “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
It said, “The Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him. Although Saudi officials had pre-planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi we do not know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him.”
An outraged Congress had demanded the release of the intelligence report on his killing, but former President Donald Trump had refused to release it because of his close ties to Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and critic of the monarchy, disappeared in October 2018 after he was seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get documents from his divorce needed for him to get married again.
After claiming that he had left the consulate alive, Saudi Arabia finally admitted that he had been killed in a fight.
Turkey’s intelligence obtained recordings of his killing inside the consulate and they became public. According to the agency, his body was dismembered and disposed of.
The US is no longer dependent on Middle East oil giving it some flexibility in approaching the Middle East.
But having been historically involved in the region and dragged further into it due to its interventions in Iraq, Syria and Libya, Washington has to pilot itself amid Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran in a region studded with their proxies, governments as well as militias and groups.
Trump has made things more complicated by pulling out of the multinational nuclear deal with Iran while drawing closer to Saudi Arabia and Israel and imposing sanctions on Teheran.
Biden has to get Teheran to agree again to stop developing its nuclear capabilities and rejoin the agreement, even as the Iran regime tests the limits with the US when militias supported by it attack US interests in Iraq — and invites US retaliation.
(Arul Louis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)