Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
“Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” This was the conclusion of a partially redacted intelligence report that was released on February 26th. It confirmed what was already widely known: that the heir to the Saudi throne was responsible for the killing and dismemberment of a dissident journalist in October 2018.
The decision by the Biden administration to release the redacted report was lauded as a significant shift in the US-Saudi relationship. It followed an announcement to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. After releasing the report, the administration announced with much gravitas the “Khashoggi Ban” – giving the State Department the ability to sanction and impose visa restrictions on individuals connected to “counter-dissident” acts.
All of this was accompanied with much stern rhetoric. During his campaign, Biden pledged to “make [Saudi Arabia] in fact the pariah that they are.” In his Presidency, there has been talk of “recalibrating” the US-Saudi relationship. Announcing the “Khashoggi Ban”, Anthony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State stated grandly that “extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents and journalists […] will not be tolerated by the United states.”
And yet, when the report was released and sanctions against 76 individuals connected with the murder announced, there was a notable omission. The Crown Prince, who has been consolidating his position domestically and abroad, was not among the targeted individuals. In fact, he faced no consequences for his central role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The administration concluded that they would not risk sanctioning the Prince, which could potentially jeopardise the US-Saudi relationship. As a result, the State Department was not asked to present the Administration with options – the idea was not even considered.
Upon closer examination, this ‘new’ approach by the administration begins to wither. In a phone call with King Salman, Biden “affirmed the importance” of human rights. The name Jamal Khashoggi did not come up. Whilst the US is ending military support for the Saudi war in Yemen, it will continue to supply the kingdom with defensive weapons. Add to this the de facto exculpation of the Crown Prince and Biden’s “recalibration” of the relationship looks more like tweaking.
That America is willing to overlook human rights violations by allies is not new and should not be surprising. The United States has a long track record of letting allies off the hook in the name of “pragmatism” and America’s “national interest.” But because Mohammad bin Salman was so unambiguously implicated by the report, this instance of double standards sends a dangerous message – and damages the administration’s credibility.
Especially following high-minded rhetoric of American values and a renewed focus on human rights and the justified criticism of Donald Trump’s cosy relationship with the Crown Prince, it delineates early in Biden’s Presidency how limited concrete actions will be. The erratic and openly cynical Trump administration may be gone, but only to be replaced with pragmatic hypocrisy.