Joe Biden’s spokesperson said Monday the U.S. ‘reserves the right’ to sanction Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamala Khashoggi.
‘Our objective is to recalibrate the relationship, prevent this from ever happening again and to find ways to work together with Saudi leadership,’ White House Press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a press briefing on Monday afternoon.
In a Sunday morning interview, Psaki told CNN that there are ‘more effective ways’ for President Biden to retaliate against MBS than directly issuing sanctions after a recent intelligence report indicated the de facto Saudi ruler was behind Khashoggi’s killing.
She walked back slightly on those comments on Monday.
‘Of course we reserve the right to take any action at a time and manner of our choosing,’ Psaki said during her daily briefing. ‘Historically, the United States through Democratic and Republican presidents has not typically sanctioned government leaders of countries where we have diplomatic relations.’
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday said President Joe Biden ‘reserves the right’ to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for U.S-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder
Biden said Saturday that he would make an announcement regarding Saudi Arabia on Monday – which has yet to come – after receiving criticism for not being hard enough on MBS
A U.S. intelligence report concluded the de facto Saudi ruler (pictured on Saturday) was behind the killing of Khashoggi
Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador defended the Crown Prince on Monday, claiming the U.S. intelligence report doesn’t have any firm evidence that could implicate MBS in Khashoggi’s death.
‘The CIA report was introduced with big fanfare as the report that will clarify and present firm evidence linking Prince Mohammed to the murder of Khashoggi,’ Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said in a Twitter post on Monday.
He said, however: ‘The report therefore is based on could’ve, should’ve and would’ve and does not rise to anywhere close to proving the accusation beyond reasonable doubt.’
‘The Prince courageously accepted moral responsibility, presented the accused to the justice system, and pledged to reform the intelligence organizations,’ Al-Mouallimi continued.
He asserted in the six-tweet thread: ‘Case closed! Let us all move forward to tackle the serious business of world issues!!’
Biden said on Saturday that his administration would make an announcement on Saudi Arabia on Monday. No such announcement has been made yet.
It follows a U.S. intelligence report that found MBS had approved the killing of Khashoggi in 2018.
The Biden administration has faced some criticism that the president should have been tougher on the crown prince, who was not sanctioned despite being blamed for approving Khashoggi’s murder.
Psaki suggested Sunday, and partially abandoned on Monday, that Joe Biden will not directly issue sanctions against MBS.
‘We believe there is more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement – where there is national interests for the United States,’ Psaki told CNN in an interview.
‘That is what diplomacy looks like,’ Biden’s press secretary said during an interview with ‘State of the Union’ on Sunday morning.
The president’s spokesperson was specifically asked why the U.S. was punishing people under the Crown Prince, but not MBS himself.
Khashoggi, who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of MBS, was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018. MBS has denied any involvement in his murder
She called Khashoggi’s 2018 murder a ‘horrific crime.’
‘That is what complicated global engagement looks like and we have made no secret and been clear we are going to hold them accountable on the global stage and with direct actions,’ Psaki added.
When Biden was asked Saturday about punishing MBS, the president said: ‘There will be an announcement on Monday as to what we are going to be doing with Saudi Arabia generally.’
He did not provide details any further details at the time.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of MBS policies, was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
The intelligence report released Friday, which had been withheld after being completed under Trump, said it was ‘highly unlikely’ that Khashoggi’s murder could have taken place without his green light.
The report points to the crown prince’s ‘absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations,’ where his authority is already well established.
The killing of Khashoggi also fits a pattern of ‘the crown prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad’, it added.
But Saudi observers dismissed the highly anticipated report, with Ali Shihabi, a government adviser close to the kingdom’s royal court, saying the ‘thin’ assessment lacked a ‘smoking gun’.
The Saudi government, which has denied any involvement by the crown prince, on Friday issued a statement rejecting the U.S. report’s findings and repeating its previous statements that Khashoggi’s killing was a heinous crime by a rogue group.
Soon after the report was made public, the Arabic hashtag ‘We are all MBS’ began trending on Twitter, with pro-government cyber armies tweeting in support of the Saudi heir apparent.
The Saudi leadership is ‘untouchable’, screamed a front-page headline in the pro-government Okaz newspaper, which also denounced the report.
On Friday, Biden had said in an interview with Univision that he would hold Saudi Arabia ‘accountable’, adding that he had spoken with King Salman about the decision.
‘I spoke yesterday with the king … Made it clear to him that the rules are changing and we’re going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday. We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses,’ Biden said.
‘If they want to deal with us, they will have to deal with it in a way that the human rights abuses are dealt with,’ he continued.
The president added that once he got his hands on the report, he worked to ‘immediately’ read and release it.
‘It is outrageous what happened,’ he asserted.
Despite the unequivocal conclusions of the assessment, the administration stopped short of imposing any diplomatic or economic sanctions on the heir to the throne of the influential ally.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained that Biden wants to ‘recalibrate’ but not ‘rupture’ its relations with Riyadh, a longstanding Middle East partner.
‘This is not the Saudi smack-down that many expected,’ said Varsha Koduvayur, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington think-tank.
It indicates ‘Biden’s overall Saudi stance: put values at the heart of US foreign policy, emphasize human rights, and reverse the transactional approach of last four years (under Trump) — while preserving the relationship,’ Koduvayur added.
Among the punitive steps the United States took on Friday was the imposition of a visa ban on some Saudis believed involved in the Khashoggi killing and sanctions on others, including a former deputy intelligence chief, which would freeze their U.S. assets and generally bar Americans from dealing with them.
Blinken released a statement stating the world was ‘horrified’ by Khashoggi’s killing and announcing a new ‘Khashoggi ban’ visa restriction on people linked to ‘counter-dissident activities.’
He said the government has acted against 76 individuals but did not identify Khashoggi.
The public censure of the prince along with US sanctions marks a sharp departure from the policy of former president Trump, who sought to shield the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Biden had pledged during his campaign to make the kingdom a ‘pariah’ after it got a free pass under Trump, but observers say he is instead adopting a middle path.
While scrutinizing human rights, his new administration is working to preserve a valuable security partnership as it moves to reboot nuclear talks with Riyadh’s arch-enemy Tehran.
Biden also needs to deal with the top crude producer on the highly fraught issues of energy, counterterrorism, and efforts to end the conflict in Yemen.
‘The Biden foreign policy team is comprised of seasoned experts who are not so naive as to think that they can achieve their goals in the Middle East without dealing with a Saudi state that still anchors, though in a less totalizing way, both oil and security in the Gulf,’ said Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
‘For this reason, they have ruled out the sanctioning of Mohammed bin Salman, preserving space to deal with the Saudi state and its top leadership.’
Recent official statements from Washington have called Saudi Arabia a ‘security partner’, instead of what the Trump administration highlighted as an ‘ally’ and a key buyer of US military hardware.
In an apparent snub earlier this week, Biden insisted on making his first Saudi phone call to 85-year-old King Salman, even as Saudi pro-government supporters insisted that his son, Prince Mohammed, was the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler.
‘Washington realizes that MBS could go on to rule Saudi Arabia for the next half century, so it cannot afford to completely alienate him,’ a Western diplomat told AFP.
‘But it is also making clear that it will no longer give him a free pass.’
The crown prince has denied involvement in the October 2018 murder of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident.
MBS did accept responsibility for Khashoggi’s assassination – and Riyadh eventually asserted that the U.S.-based journalist was killed in a ‘rogue’ extradition operation gone wrong.
Five men were given the death penalty for the journalist’s murder but had their sentences commuted to 20 years in prison after being forgiven by Khashoggi’s family.
Khashoggi fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 to live in self-imposed exile.
He was writing columns critical of the Saudi government – including of both King Salman and MBS – for The Washington Post when he was killed.In October 2018, Khashoggi visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, to pick up the paperwork required for his marriage to a Turkish citizen. He was never seen leaving.