On Friday, Joe Biden’s administration confirmed what the world knew: that Saudi Arabia’s ruthless crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, approved the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Biden followed through on a campaign promise to release a summary report of the US intelligence community’s findings on the murder, and he undid two years of stonewalling by Donald Trump.
But Biden failed to keep a more important promise: to hold Khashoggi’s killers accountable. Worried about disrupting the US-Saudi relationship, Biden decided not to impose sanctions on the crown prince. By giving the prince a pass, Biden skirted true justice for the murdered journalist and other dissidents who have suffered at Prince Mohammed’s hands. And, in turn, the reckless prince is unlikely to be dissuaded from more repression and crimes.
Instead of targeting the prince, the Biden administration imposed travel bans and financial sanctions against some of his underlings who took part in Khashoggi’s assassination at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The US also sanctioned the Rapid Intervention Force, an elite unit that protects Prince Mohammed and answers only to him. The US intelligence report released on Friday said that seven members of the force were part of the 15-man team that killed Khashoggi. The report directly blamed the crown prince, noting that since 2017, he “has had absolute control of the kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”
Despite this evidence, Biden and his aides decided that Prince Mohammed was too big to punish. While Biden had promised during the presidential campaign to change the US-Saudi relationship, he reverted to his cautious nature. In the name of pragmatism, Biden resorted to the longstanding US foreign policy that looks the other way as America’s autocratic allies commit atrocities at home and abroad.
Biden’s reluctance to hold Prince Mohammed accountable for Khashoggi’s murder raises doubts about whether the new administration will follow through on its pledges to remake the US-Saudi relationship. During a campaign debate in November 2019, Biden said he would make the Saudis into “the pariah that they are”, adding that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government”. He promised that his administration would not “sell more weapons to them”.
On 4 February, in his first major foreign policy speech as president, Biden pledged to end US support for “offensive operations” in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Days earlier, his administration announced it would freeze two new deals with the kingdom, totaling nearly $800m in precision-guided bombs and other weapons, that were rushed by Trump in his final weeks in office. Biden pledged to end American complicity in a war that has killed more than 233,000 people and created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
But Biden also promised to help Saudi Arabia defend itself against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have attacked Saudi territory with missiles and drones. That means the US will continue to sell some weapons and provide military assistance to the Saudis for defensive purposes. On 25 February, 41 progressive members of Congress sent a letter to Biden asking his administration to clarify how it will distinguish between “offensive” and “defensive” arms sales and other types of military support for the Saudis.
Prince Mohammed was the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen in 2015, expecting a quick victory against the Houthis, who are allied with Iran, the kingdom’s regional rival. But the war was the first in a series of destructive policies pursued by the crown prince that destabilized the Middle East. For four years, the Trump administration gave the prince and his regime a blank check, in exchange for continued weapons sales and stable oil prices.
Biden has been less obsequious to Prince Mohammed than Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who struck up a close friendship with the prince. But by refusing to sanction Prince Mohammed for Khashoggi’s murder, Biden hasn’t delivered the reckoning he had promised.
And this will only embolden the prince. The Biden administration has essentially told Prince Mohammed that he’s too powerful to punish, even symbolically, as the kingdom’s de facto leader who is likely to ascend to the throne after his ailing, 85-year-old father, King Salman, dies or abdicates. Biden did not want to risk alienating the 35-year-old crown prince who could be king for decades.
Biden and his aides seem to be relying on wishful thinking: that the prince would no longer try to hunt down, kidnap or kill dissidents outside the kingdom, fearing that a future crime could instigate US sanctions or other punishment. But since Khashoggi’s murder, the Saudi regime has continued it crackdown on political opponents at home and abroad. (Last month, a Saudi dissident living in Montreal disappeared after visiting the Saudi embassy in Ottawa, and he recently emerged in the kingdom.) The problem with Biden’s wishful thinking is that Prince Mohammed, like other autocrats, will be emboldened to take greater risks, rather than showing restraint. Prince Mohammed may well conclude that, since he got away with Khashoggi’s murder, he could be more ruthless once he ascends to the throne.
Some Biden aides argue that barring Prince Mohammed from travel to the US or targeting his personal wealth would not have a significant impact on the prince. But these sanctions would have had a symbolic effect, especially for a leader who is highly conscious of his image in the west. For years, Saudi leaders have spent tens of millions of dollars on public relations firms, lobbyists, think tanks, and cultural institutions that help burnish the kingdom’s image in the US and Europe. In 2017, the year Prince Mohammed consolidated power, the Saudis tripled their spending on lobbyists and consultants in Washington, to more than $27m.
That investment paid off in early 2018, six months before Khashoggi’s assassination, when Prince Mohammed toured the US and was treated like a rock star. He visited Silicon Valley, toured Harvard and MIT, met with Wall Street executives and movie stars, and even had a sit-down with Oprah Winfrey.
The Biden administration says Prince Mohammed won’t be invited back to the US anytime soon, but sanctions would have embarrassed the prince and punctured his image as a young reformer and a strong leader. In fact, the US intelligence report makes clear that Prince Mohammed is the ultimate toxic boss, noting that he “fostered an environment in which aides were afraid that failure to complete assigned tasks might result in him firing or arresting them”.
By pledging to end US support for the Yemen war, Biden took the first step toward a more compassionate foreign policy. But he fell short in holding Prince Mohammed accountable for his human rights violations and repression. Biden missed an opportunity to restore confidence that, after Trump’s coddling of dictators, Washington won’t quietly provide cover to its autocratic allies.
Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University, is a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is a non-resident fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now