When Saudi Arabian dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had not expected the outcry that would follow. For perhaps the first time in recent history, Saudi critics and Saudi supporters were united in their condemnation of the extrajudicial killing.
The allegations – that Khashoggi, who had disappeared after entering the embassy on October 2, had been murdered and his body dismembered and disposed of by Saudi agents – sparked a diplomatic crisis in Istanbul, Riyadh and London, but not in Washington DC. The then US president, Donald Trump, continued to publicly support Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, its de facto ruler. Two-and-a-half years later, the White House has a new occupant. With a CIA investigation into Khashoggi’s murder now declassified, will the US president, Joe Biden, shift the gear on US-Saudi relations?
What the headline of the CIA’s report into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi would be has been relatively clear all this time: Prince Mohammed approved an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi. And yet Trump was not interested in justice for the murdered journalist. Trump’s focus on pursuing a transactional relationship with the Gulf state, quantifiable in billions made from weapons deals and arms exports, formed the baseline for the US relationship with Saudi Arabia during his presidency.
Biden, however, so far appears interested in restoring the importance placed on values in international relations, and has been more reticent about engaging with Prince Mohammed directly during his first month in office. The White House has signalled that Biden is looking to rebalance the relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is a challenge many US presidents have grappled with before. Biden will supposedly seek to carefully balance cooperation with a long-standing US ally, while taking more of a stand than his predecessor did against Saudi Arabia’s excesses, such as its waging of war in Yemen, which has sparked the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.
So far, Biden has ended US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen. He has also put a temporary stop to arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including precision-guided munitions, which have been used to target Yemeni civilians. This is significant, given that in the period 2015 to 2019 just under 75% of Saudi arms imports came from the US. Alongside the publication of the CIA report, secretary of state Antony Blinken announced a “Khashoggi ban”, which imposes visa restrictions on any individuals who have threatened dissidents overseas on behalf of a foreign government. The US has immediately used the ban to impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi nationals.
Ultimately though, none of these measures directly target or affect Prince Mohammed, who the CIA points to as the person who approved Khashoggi’s murder. While the White House has tried to send signals to Saudi Arabia and may not favour Prince Mohammed, it is likely he will take over the throne from his father and rule the kingdom for decades to come. The Biden administration may dislike Prince Mohammed personally, but they will probably need to work with him if the US is to maintain a working relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The Biden administration is sending a strong signal that past erratic behaviour by the crown prince will no longer be tolerated. However, it is not clear what, exactly, any consequences in response to such behaviour would be and the extent to which Biden is willing to put the US-Saudi alliance on the line. It is also unclear whether the Biden administration will seek to target Prince Mohammed individually.
Saudi Arabia anticipated Biden’s position and has sought to sweeten the new administration by releasing Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul from prison and restoring diplomatic relations with Qatar. Having heard the promises Biden made while on the campaign trail, during which he called Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”, the timing of these is no coincidence.
The extent to which the US-Saudi relationship will indeed cool remains to be seen. Saudi Arabia is still considered a key US ally to hedge against Iranian influence in the Middle East. Iran has steadily increased its reach in the region through proxy organisations which operate in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Equally, the US may simply believe that they cannot afford to lose Saudi Arabia as an ally in the Middle East, particularly as the Gulf state is considered to be a key ally in counter-terrorism efforts.
So, while the Biden administration may seek to distance itself from the cosy relationship that Prince Mohammed enjoyed with the Trump family and reset the relationship in that regard, it is unlikely that it will cut all diplomatic and political ties with Saudi Arabia.
Where does this leave justice for Jamal Khashoggi? The CIA report does clarify where his body is. It is unlikely that Prince Mohammed will ever be tried by an independent judiciary for his role in the murder, or that he will be directly sanctioned by the US. Two-and-a-half years on, we are no closer to justice.
Armida L. M. van Rij receives funding from the Oxford Research Group.