- The White House is facing criticism for not sanctioning MBS over Khashoggi’s murder.
- Biden officials insist an intel report and limited sanctions will prevent future killings.
- A report released last week explicitly implicated MBS in the murder.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday said that the actions the Biden administration has taken in response to the declassified intelligence assessment on Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder represent the “the best way to prevent a crime like this from ever happening again.”
But though the intelligence report explicitly implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s killing, stating that the crown prince “approved” the operation to “capture or kill” the Saudi journalist, the Biden administration is not sanctioning him.
The administration insists it’s taking the best course of action to prevent Saudi Arabia or others from murdering journalists like Khashoggi in the future, but apparently does not believe this should involve imposing economic consequences on the leader US intelligence says is responsible for the killing.
The White House has essentially leaned on the importance of the diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia in defense of its actions, which includes releasing the intelligence report and sanctioning some Saudi officials implicated in the killing.
“Historically and even in recent history, Democratic and Republican administrations, there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” Psaki said during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
The Biden administration has effectively declared that Prince Mohammed is too important to sanction, even though he ordered the murder of a journalist.
Few consequences for MBS
After the report was released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Friday, the Treasury Department announced sanctions on Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, a former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence services, and the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force (RIF) over their involvement in Khashoggi’s killing. The RIF is Prince Mohammed’s security detail and “answers only to him,” the report stated.
The State Department also announced a new policy called the “Khashoggi Ban” that could result in visa restrictions on anyone targeting or harming dissidents on behalf of a foreign government. The agency said it would impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudis “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”
But when asked if Prince Mohammed would be impacted by the new policy, the State Department told Insider, “Under US law, individual visa records are confidential, and we cannot provide details as to who is or will be included in the Khashoggi Ban.” In other words, the names of the 76 people who will face visa restrictions will not be publicly disclosed.
The intelligence assessment painted a damning portrait of Prince Mohammed, stating that he “viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him.”
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist at the time of his death, was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. He was lured to the consulate, killed, and his body was dismembered. Khashoggi’s remains have still not been located, more than two years after his killing. The Saudi journalist had entered the consulate seeking documents to marry his Turkish fiance, Hatice Cengiz.
But the consequences the crown prince has faced over Khashoggi’s death have been minimal, despite pledges from President Joe Biden along the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the killing.
The Biden administration released the ODNI assessment that publicly shamed the crown prince and reiterated the previously reported CIA conclusion that he had ordered the murder. The Trump administration refused to release a declassified report on the killing, as then-President Donald Trump controversially prioritized the US-Saudi partnership and shielded the crown prince from congressional retribution.
The crown prince has also been snubbed diplomatically by Biden, who has named King Salman his “counterpart” in Saudi Arabia for the purpose of official communications. This is in spite of the fact Prince Mohammed is the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and the one who really calls the shots at the end of the day.
Biden in early February also announced an end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where a devastating conflict that Prince Mohammed is the architect of has fueled the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
That said, Biden is still facing widespread criticism for not sanctioning the crown prince, colloquially known as MBS, in light of the intelligence report on Khashoggi.
‘An extremely dangerous move on the part of the USA’
The Washington Post editorial board said Biden is granting “what amounts to a pass to a ruler who has sown instability around the Middle East in recent years while presiding over the most severe repression of dissent in modern Saudi history.”
The Post said Biden is taking a “risky course,” warning that if “the criminal apparatus MBS employed against Khashoggi is not dismantled, there will be more victims.”
“It is essential that the crown prince … should be punished without delay,” Khashoggi’s fiance said on Twitter. “If the crown prince is not punished, it will forever signal that the main culprit can get away with murder which will endanger us all and be a stain on our humanity.”
“Starting with the Biden administration, it is vital for all world leaders to ask themselves if they are prepared to shake hands with a person whose culpability as a murderer has been proven,” Cengiz added.
Agnes Callamard, a UN human rights investigator who spearheaded an inquiry into Khashoggi’s killing, said it’s “dangerous” the US did not sanction Prince Mohammed.
“It is extremely problematic, in my view, if not dangerous, to acknowledge someone’s culpability and then to tell that someone ‘but we won’t do anything, please proceed as if have we have said nothing’,” Callamard said at a news conference, per Reuters. “That to me is an extremely dangerous move on the part of the USA.”
The US has long seen Saudi Arabia as a crucial ally in the Middle East and an important buffer against Iran, which both countries view as a threat. But Khashoggi’s murder, among other issues, has led many in the US foreign policy community to question the value of the historic partnership.
“The stated reason for not sanctioning MBS is he leads a US ally, but that should raise the question: why do we have an ally that murders journalists? Biden did not create this dynamic, but I hope his Administration truly wrestles with it,” Ben Rhodes, a top foreign policy advisor under the Obama administration, said in a tweet. “Some partnerships aren’t worth the price.”