Washington: US President Joe Biden has decided that the diplomatic cost of directly penalising Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is too high, according to senior administration officials despite an intelligence finding that he directly approved the killing of scribe Jamal Khashoggi, who was drugged and dismembered in 2018.
The declassified report said that Crown Prince approved a plot to “capture or kill” Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, who was lured to the Saudi consulate and killed. The report’s release raises the stakes on relations between the Biden administration and the likely next ruler of the Saudi Kingdom.
According to The New York Times, Biden’s decision came after weeks of debate in which his newly formed national security team advised him that there was no way to formally bar the heir to the Saudi crown from entering the US or to weigh criminal charges against him, without breaching the relationship with one of the US’ key Arab allies.
“A consensus developed inside the White House that the cost of that breach, in Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism and in confronting Iran, was simply too high,” Officials told the New York Times.
NYT reported that the decision was a “telling indication of how his more cautious instincts kicked in”, as the responsibilities of managing a difficult ally led him to find ways other than going directly after Prince Mohammed to make Saudi Arabia pay a price.
While human rights groups and members of his own party applauded Biden for making public the official intelligence finding, whose contents leaked more than two years ago, many said that it was just a first step — and that more had to be done to hold the crown prince, known by his initials MBS, accountable for his role.
NYT further reported Biden’s aides said that Prince Mohammed would not be invited to the US anytime soon, and they denied that they were giving Saudi Arabia a pass, describing series of new actions on lower-level officials intended to penalise elite elements of the Saudi military and impose new deterrents to human rights abuses.
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator, applauded Biden for “trying to thread the needle here.” “This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” Ross told NYT.
“We are now doing things that show a clear difference from Trump on democracy and human rights,” he added. “On the other hand, there is not an issue in the Middle East where we do not need them to play a role — on Iran, on competing with the Chinese. And if you sanction the crown prince directly you basically create a relationship of hostility, and you force them to show that there is a high price the US has to pay for that.”
Biden and his aides have said that they intend to take a far tougher line with the Saudis in comparison to former President Donald Trump — who vetoed legislation passed by both houses of Congress to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
The release on Friday of a declassified summary of the American intelligence findings on the Khashoggi killing was also a reversal of Trump administration policies where the former President refused to make it public, knowing it would fuel the action for sanctions or criminal action against Prince Mohammed.
Human Rights Watch praised Washington
Human Rights Watch praised Washington for its release of the report and said it made “clear that the US needs to act now to put human rights at the forefront of its relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
But the group added that the US should declare that its freeze on offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia would not be lifted until the Saudis themselves brought those implicated in the killing to justice, “including the crown prince.”
Earlier, Biden said that he will hold Saudi Arabia accountable after the government released a report revealing that Saudi Crown Prince ordered the assassination of US-based journalist.
According to a US declassified report, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince approved an operation in Istanbul to capture or kill Khashoggi, who was murdered in 2018.
Khashoggi, who was a vocal critic of the Saudi regime, was killed on October 2, 2018, in Turkey where he had gone to obtain paperwork certifying his divorce from his former wife Alaa Nassif in order to be able to marry his Turkish fiancee Hatice Cengiz.
His killing had brought international outrage and battered the reputation of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman.