Since the Biden administration took office it became gradually clear that the most contentious tilt of the Trump administration towards the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia would witness a radical change. It did happen and rather quite early in the new US administration with the release of the declassified US intelligence report into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It is widely believed that the release of this highly damaging report represents a blow to the power, prestige and international standing of one of the Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman widely known as MBS. It is also conjectured in international circles that this development could even have implications for the West’s dealings with Saudi Arabia for decades to come as it will make it harder than ever for Western leaders to be publicly associated with MBS.
The report asserts that MBS was complicit in that gruesome murder in 2018 of a Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi who was part-time columnist of the influential Washington Post. The fact of the matter is that as things stand today, MBS looks set to be the power on the Saudi throne for a very long time as at 35 years of age the prince enjoys widespread popularity in his country as representing the urges of Saudi Arabia’s predominately young population. Partly due to patriotism and partly due to a massive clampdown on civil liberties, there has been negligible public criticism of the crown prince until now.
Releasing the damaging report constitutes one aspect of the new policy unfurled by Joe Biden towards Saudi Arabia has followed his indication that he wants to deal with Saudi’s King Salman, not MBS but the king and his son operate in extremely close concert so this distinction is largely meaningless in practice. Moreover, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz is 85, in poor health and has already handed over most of his powers to MBS who has quickly amassed state power in his hands and is known for his insistence on obedience to his will.
The release of the report was nothing unexpected as MBS’ links to the Khashoggi murder have long been known to most Western intelligence agencies but they were not made public. Gina Haspel, who headed the CIA from 2018 until earlier this year, flew to Ankara where Turkish intelligence played her the chilling audio tape of Khashoggi’s last, desperate moments inside the Saudi Consulate as he was overpowered and suffocated by the agents sent from Riyadh. Turkey’s secret recordings from inside the Saudi Consulate – itself a diplomatic misdemeanour that has been largely overlooked amid the horror of Khashoggi’s murder – have also been shared with other Western intelligence agencies.
In that instant it was described that the US officials said the CIA had concluded with a medium to high degree of certainty that MBS was complicit but while President Trump was in the White House the US intelligence report was kept under wraps so as not to embarrass his close ally in Riyadh though that top cover has now blown. The Biden administration will impose no direct sanction on Saudi Arabia as the US secretary of state mentioned that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual but the administration could not any longer ignore recalibration of the US-Saudi relationship.
Despite the sensitivity of bilateral relationship many lawmakers, human rights activists and Saudi dissidents believe that these actions of the Biden administration are not enough and they strongly propose applying sanctions on MBS, including financial, travel and legal and also to make the Saudi government face grave consequences while he stays in power. This line of action has the avid support of Democratic senator from Oregon Ron Wyden whose legislation in early 2019 mandated release of the report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) but was blocked by the Trump White House.
Senior officials of the Biden administration sharply rejected to suggestions that its decision not to sanction MBS was a continuation of President Trump’s cozy relationship with the Saudi rulers and emphatically mention that the US, as a matter of practice has not generally applied sanctions on the highest leadership of countries with which it has diplomatic relations. Sanctioning MBS would place him on a short list that includes North Korea’s Kim Jong Un; Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko; Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela; Syria’s Bashar al-Assad; and the late Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. It would be viewed in the kingdom as an enormous insult and make an ongoing relationship extremely difficult, if not impossible.
While viewing this situation in the wider terms, analysts in the Biden administration are of the opinion that barring unforeseen palace upheaval and also in wake of the advanced age of his father, King Salman, who at 85 is known to be suffering from dementia and other ailments, MBS may soon be the absolute ruler of a major US regional security partner. Though Biden has not hesitated to express displeasure with the repressive Saudi monarchy yet he has called the kingdom an important regional partner, saying the United States will continue counterterrorism cooperation and defensive assistance against regional threats particularly from Iran.
It was in this context that the White House delayed Biden’s initial call with King Salman until a month after the inauguration and made clear it did not want his son on the line. Neither side mentioned whether the Khashoggi issue was discussed on the call. For the present, the administration states that it does not intend to deal with the crown prince in any capacity other than as Saudi defence minister and that he will not be extended an invitation to visit the United States. Keeping in view these considerations the officials of the Biden administration add that after having looked at this situation extremely closely, the unanimous conclusion is that there are more effective means to dealing with these issues.
In new measures the State Department imposed what it called “the Khashoggi ban,” implying visa restrictions, against 76 Saudi individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing. US Treasury Department is also imposing sanctions on Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, who served as a close aide to MBS as deputy chief of Saudi intelligence. He was fired from the post a few weeks after Khashoggi was killed and implicated by Saudi prosecutors in the murder plot but the Trump administration, while sanctioning 17 other Saudi operatives, declined to list him, for reasons it never explained.
It is significant to recollect that MBS, during an interview pointed out that the United States had never released an official statement implicating him and there is not clear information or evidence that someone close to him did something. Asked then about the reported CIA finding, he said that if there was any such information that charges on him then he expressed hope that it would be brought forward publicly that has now been done. Responding to the released report, Saudi Arabia said that it completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment pertaining to the Kingdom’s leadership but while it said the Kingdom rejects any measure that infringes on its leadership, sovereignty and the independence of its judicial system, it affirmed a robust and thriving partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
It is more than obvious that the US still needs a good working relationship with the Saudi royal court, given the ongoing global threat from IS and al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism but they would much prefer to deal with a safe and steady pair of hands instead of an unpredictable maverick that is MBS. It is also interesting that anything that undermines the strategic US-Saudi partnership is a gift to Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran. Despite years of sanctions, it is generally mentioned that Iran has achieved upper hand in the Middle East extending its strategic reach through its proxy militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen leaving the Saudis surrounded. It is however apprehended that in the long term, all this will likely push the Saudi leadership towards diversifying its defence and security partners, possibly opening new doors for Russia and China. TW