Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi murder report

Washington, United States | Satur, February 27, 2021 | 7:32 pm

President Joe Biden spoke with Saudi King Salman for the first time on Thursday, a day before a US intelligence report is expected to link the Arab kingdom’s influential crown prince to the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. After being sworn in five weeks ago, Biden kept the king waiting in his long list of calls to US allies. And when he actually reached out to the Saudis, it was to the king, and not to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, who was supposed to succeed him.

The phone diplomacy was part of what the White House is calling a “reset” in relations following Khashoggi’s assassination inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018. The White House says that a US intelligence report on the incident, in which Khashoggi is thought to have been killed and then chopped into bits, is being made public “soon.” It is expected to show that the crown prince was involved in the assassination, which involved a large number of Saudi agents stationed at the consulate before Khashoggi arrived.

Khashoggi, a Saudi national who worked for The Washington Post and lived in the United States, was a vocal opponent of the young prince. The US determination to help Saudi Arabia protect its territories as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups was stressed by Biden and the 85-year-old king, according to the White House. However, Biden also “affirmed the importance the United States places on basic human rights and the rule of law” in a change from the Donald Trump period. According to the Saudi state news agency, the king and Biden discussed “the scope of the relationship between the two countries” and Iran’s “destabilizing activities and threats its support for terrorist groups” in the region.

Human rights emphasis

Trump paid no attention to the abuses of human rights committed by Saudi Arabia. His son-in-law and Middle East advisor, Jared Kushner, and 35-year-old Prince Mohammed became texting friends. To some extent, Biden is likely to have his hands bound, because the truth is that MBS is lined up to take over Saudi Arabia and is the de facto ruler already. In most cases, the US does not enforce penalties on high-ranking foreign officials. Saudi Arabia is a key strategic ally because of its large oil reserves and rivalry with Iran. The US military struck facilities in Syria that they said were being used by Iran-backed forces on Thursday, serving as a reminder of mutual US and Saudi interests in the region.

But the release of the intelligence report, which may come as early as Friday, is a sharp departure in tone, reinforcing the strategy of the administration to call out Saudi Arabia on rights issues. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan on the phone. According to State Department spokesman Ned Price, they “discussed the importance of Saudi progress on human rights, including through legal and judicial reforms.” Prince Mohammed has confirmed that while he acknowledges Saudi Arabia’s ultimate responsibility for Khashoggi’s assassination, he denies any personal involvement.

Biden needed to take more meaningful steps, according to Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World, an advocacy group founded by Khashoggi. “President Biden can now fulfill his pledge to keep MBS responsible for the murder by, at the very least, imposing on him the same punishments as those levied on his underlying perpetrators and putting an end to the arms transfers to Saudi Arabia operated by an un-elected, ruthless assassin,” she said.

Whitewash

Five people were sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for the murder. But in September, a Saudi court reversed them while handing eight unidentified defendants prison sentences of up to 20 years following secret legal proceedings. The legal procedure has been dubbed a “whitewash” by human rights critics, who argue it is aimed at blaming the hit men while ignoring the mastermind. CNN, citing documents filed in a Canadian civil case, stated that a company previously confiscated by Prince Mohammed operated two private jets used by the squad that allegedly flew to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi.

When Khashoggi was assassinated on October 2, 2018, he was a revered veteran journalist and editor living in self-exile in the United States, publishing articles critical of the crown prince. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States had instructed the 59-year-old writer to go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul if he wanted to obtain documents for his forthcoming marriage. He was killed there, and his body dismembered by a team sent from Riyadh under the leadership of Saud al-Qahtani, Prince Mohammed’s top security advisor.

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