Much to the chagrin of the Saudi kingdom, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi is simply not going away. It came to haunt the kingdom again as the impending release of an intelligence report appears to have further complicated the already strained US-Saudi relations. Facing court cases and its own promises of transparency, the Biden administration is about to release a long-sought US intelligence report concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is a serious jolt to the arbitrary ruler of the desert kingdom who is grappling with the downturn in his country’s economy.
Biden administration’s plans to release the report has come in wake of the further tumbling of US-Saudi relations with the new US administration canceling arms sales, criticising human rights abuses, harassment of dissidents and pledging to recalibrate ties with the kingdom. Though the new administration has mentioned that it will keep on supplying weapons to the Saudi Arabia known as the world’s biggest customer for US weaponry for defending itself against foreign aggression but it has also made clear that it will, in contrast to its predecessor, press the Saudis toward a diplomatic end to their war in Yemen and to moderate their own extremism and it will not allow Riyadh to interfere with its plans to rejoin the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran.
Considered as a significant and calculated snub, the White House publicly announced that President Biden would not speak to MBS as he considers King Salman as the appropriate authority to get in touch with. By doing so the new administration has indicated that it does not recognise the leading role that MBS has arrogated to himself and this is a quantum policy shift from Trump era when having ties with MBS was assigned tremendous importance. Trump had conveniently ignored the killing of the Saudi journalist just to remain on the right side of Saudi crown prince but, though fraught with bitter after-effects Biden is anxious to redefine America’s position in the matter.
In this context it is mentioned that in 2019, Congress passed a law giving the Trump administration 30 days to submit an unclassified intelligence report with a determination and evidence with respect to the advance knowledge and role of any current or former official of Saudi Arabia over the directing, ordering or tampering of evidence in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and it also specifically ordered a release of names. Trump however ignored the mandate of Congress, instead intimating the congressional leaders that he was unable to provide additional information at the unclassified level. The official stance taken by the Trump administration was that the disclosure of additional details surrounding Khashoggi’s killing would undermine US intelligence sources and methods and insisted that there was only a marginal ‘public interest’ argument for this declassification.
Things have substantially changed after the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump as Biden has taken up the cudgels and has restored the required accountability by ending support for the horrific Saudi-led war in Yemen by pausing arms sales and promising to follow the law in respect of release the report on Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. It is also noted that, in addition to the policy adopted by the Biden administration, efforts to force release have been moving rapidly through federal court in the Southern District of New York.
The first of two cases filed by the Open Society Justice Initiative under the Freedom of Information Act is a broad 2019 request for all records related to the killing and who was responsible, including the classified CIA report. Ordered by the court to produce an index of anything that might be responsive, the Trump administration in December asked for an extension of the deadline. The Biden administration has now asked for an additional extension, until next month.
A separate case filed last summer requests the release of the two-page intelligence document and in this respect US Justice Department asked for a two-week extension, until 3 March, to respond to Open Society’s request for a summary judgment. It needed more time, the administration said to evaluate issues that may affect the government’s position in these matters.
Even as the Saudis explore alternative partners, including Russia and China, for arms purchases and nuclear power capability, they have taken some steps in response to administration concerns, including the recent release of some dissident prisoners. Some experts believe that if both sides are willing, and nuanced diplomacy is pursued, they can still find a way to work productively together. It is asserted that the first order of business is reestablishing appropriate channels of communication that were all but abandoned by Trump who left most ties to a personal relationship between the crown prince and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. The new administration intends restoring contacts through counterparts at various government levels and would be speaking to each other in routine and official channels. TW