Joe Biden’s administration last week released a report saying Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s de facto ruler, authorised a hit-squad to “kill or capture” Jamal Khashoggi, a troublesome journalist lured from the US to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and murdered in 2018. Yet Washington seems to be doing remarkably little about it, at least so far.
The report was a declassified and sanitised version of a 2018 CIA finding that the crown prince was responsible, based in large part on Turkish spies who bugged the consulate and tapped the 15-man Saudi hit-squad’s smartphones. Donald Trump, even though he doubted Prince Mohammed’s professions of innocence, chose to do nothing. But President Biden threatened to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah. Now, after a long build-up, his team seems to be saying: well, it’s complicated.
That will only feed doubts, shared by the US’s friends and foes, about American reliability — the currency Biden is determined to revive by declaring that America is back.
Trump did penalise 17 Saudis. Now, 76 will be denied visas under a new “Khashoggi ban” to deter regimes that persecute dissidents and journalists. This also targets the Rapid Intervention Force, an extraterritorial hit squad that serves as praetorian guard of the crown prince. Ahmed al-Assiri, former deputy chief of Saudi intelligence, gets full sanctions; Prince Mohammed does not receive sanctions at all.
The US wants “not to rupture the relationship but to recalibrate [it] to be more in line with our interests and our values”, secretary of state Antony Blinken said.
Murder, especially the way in which Khashoggi, a disenchanted courtier and Washington Post columnist, was butchered, is not about tone. Maher Mutreb, a brigadier-general who was one of the prince’s bodyguards and head of the hit squad, was recorded by Turkish intelligence asking “has the sacrificial animal arrived yet?” one minute before Khashoggi entered the consulate.
Publicly proclaiming the future king of Saudi Arabia as the man responsible has consequences, even if the Biden administration declines to place sanctions on him. As the report makes clear, after a Shakespearean sequence of palace coups in 2017, every security and intelligence agency in the kingdom answered to Prince Mohammed. It dismisses the Saudi explanation of a freelance rendition gone awry, and says this was not a rogue operation but a prince gone rogue.
Failure to act against Saudi Arabia, paradoxically, will embolden Iran, Riyadh’s arch-rival for regional hegemony, which has its own reasons for not believing the US. Tehran is refusing an invitation to talks with the US on reopening the 2015 nuclear accord that Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018.
Yet even under Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, the US was widely distrusted. Obama blinked first in his stand-off with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, over illegal settlements in the West Bank. He also declined to enforce his own “red line” against Bashar al-Assad’s use of nerve gas against Syrian rebels. Trump brought his unique brand of mayhem to the region, but memories are long.
It is another paradox that the Biden team’s so far weak response to what it said were Saudi crimes beyond redemption may also push the Gulf Arabs, including Saudi Arabia, into a military alliance with Israel against Iran. That would be a big step up from the growing diplomatic normalisation of ties between Israel and the Gulf — seen as an achievement by the Trump administration but also supported by Biden.
Given Israel’s episodic threats to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, that could increase the risk of dragging the US into war with Iran — just as it seeks to revive the Obama-era detente with Tehran. This sure is complicated.