Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signed off on the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a U.S. intelligence report released Friday.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the report concluded.
The report builds on classified intelligence from the CIA and other agencies after Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The decision to release the report, compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence but withheld under President Donald Trump, reflects the Biden administration’s determination to recalibrate relations with Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, over its human rights record.
Prince Mohammed has denied involvement in the killing, while saying he accepts symbolic responsibility as the country’s de facto ruler. Saudi officials have said the murder was carried out by rogue agents who’ve since been prosecuted.
In advance of report’s publication, President Joe Biden held a call Thursday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. Biden discussed regional security and the renewed U.S. and United Nations effort to end the war in Yemen. He also “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law,” the White House said in a statement.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Thursday that the U.S. was looking at other ways to punish the perpetrators of Khashoggi’s killing. Among the options may be cutting back arms sales to Saudi Arabia and imposing sanctions, he said without elaborating.
“I expect that we will be in a position before long to speak to steps to promote accountability going forward for this horrific crime,” Price told reporters in Washington.
Saudi authorities didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Biden’s decision to release the report, or the possibility that the U.S. could impose sanctions on one of its closest and most important Middle East allies. Saudi Arabia dominates the Gulf Arab region geographically, is its economic powerhouse, and has for decades been a political heavyweight in regional affairs.
Goods and services trade between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia amounted to almost $39 billion in 2019, with American exports totaling about $24 billion and imports reaching nearly $15 billion, according to U.S. government figures. That made Saudi Arabia the U.S.’s 27th-largest goods trading partner but one of the biggest customers for American arms.
The decision to release the report reflects a return, under Biden, to routine diplomatic channels and traditional U.S. pressure over human rights, even on allies.
Trump put Saudi Arabia at the center of his Middle East strategy, making it his first foreign visit. He later abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal with a common enemy, Iran, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.
Trump dismissed concerns about whether the crown prince approved the Khashoggi killing — “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t,” he said — citing the economic rewards of selling arms to the Saudis. His secretary of state, Michael Pompeo, said the U.S. had “no direct evidence” linking the prince to the murder, while Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, maintained a close working relationship with him.
In contrast, within his first few days in office, Biden put on hold major weapons sales to the kingdom pending review, and announced an end to U.S. support for offensive actions in Yemen, where he wants to wrap up a Saudi-led military intervention that’s contributed to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In an overt rebuke, he’s also downgraded relations with Prince Mohammed, who runs the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom and typically liaises directly with foreign leaders. Instead, Biden called King Salman, his official counterpart.
Biden will have to navigate the relationship with Saudi Arabia carefully, however, as he seeks to re-engage Iran and persuade it to resume compliance with the nuclear accord. Signaling that being tougher on Saudi Arabia won’t mean he’s soft on Iran, the administration ordered airstrikes overnight on Iranian-backed militias in Syria that it blames for rocket attacks on U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq.
In recent days, Saudi newspapers and commentators have emphasized the kingdom’s close relationship with the U.S.
Abdullah Al Tayer, a former Saudi official, said last week on Twitter that any attempt to “target” the king or the crown prince was targeting “the nation and its citizens in their present and their future.
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