“America is back,” declared President Biden in his first foreign policy speech on February 4, 2021, as he hailed the return of “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”
When a four-page report compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI)—previously withheld under the Trump administration—was released on February 26 by the Biden administration, expectations were high that it would begin a promised recalibration of US-Saudi relations. However, it did not reveal much of anything that we did not already know, and it appears to have precipitated only minor adjustments to US-Saudi ties.
The report’s key assessments highlighted what any political analyst of the kingdom would have said—that since 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MbS) has been “in control of decision-making” and has had “absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations.” The report further stated that it was “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”
KSA reacted predictably, issuing a statement categorically rejecting the Crown Prince’s responsibility for the decision and saying the intelligence report’s assessment was “negative, false and unacceptable.”
The findings in the report that the Trump administration had kept secret since 2019 indeed come as no surprise, being based on intelligence of the CIA and other agencies. Both the CIA and UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard issued reports after extensive investigations that arrived at the same conclusion.
Even President Biden himself stated in a primary debate in 2019, “Khashoggi was in fact murdered and dismembered, and I believe at the order of [the] Crown Prince.”
According to the White House, President Biden had a call with his counterpart head of state MbS’ father, King Salman, before the release of the report. In that call, Biden highlighted, among other things, the importance to the US of “universal human rights and the rule of law,” and imposed sanctions or visa restrictions against 76 Saudi citizens as part of a new policy aimed at nations that carry out activities against journalists and dissidents beyond their borders.
Biden’s failure to follow through and provide more significant consequences after promising to hold KSA to account for its human rights violations put him between a rock and a hard place.
However, President Biden’s failure to follow through and provide more significant consequences after promising to hold KSA to account for its human rights violations put him between a rock and a hard place. Accountability for the mastermind of the Khashoggi capture or kill operation may well remain an empty promise.
With the precariousness of politics possibly leading to no accountability of the mastermind himself, one human rights group is not waiting for action by the US government against the Crown Prince. Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a rights group founded by Khashoggi, and Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, filed a civil lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, DC on October 20, 2020.
The complaint alleged seven counts, including extrajudicial killing under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium and society for Cengiz (she is identified as his widow in the complaint based on their Islamic marriage on September 16, 2018, just one month before his murder). The plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages.
The plaintiffs announced on March 19, 2021, five months after filing the suit, that they have successfully served the complaint on the Crown Prince. He must now respond or face a default judgment.
The complaint alleges that MbS along with more than 20 other named defendants, “acting in a conspiracy and with premeditation, kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured, and assassinated U.S.-resident journalist and democracy advocate Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, then dismembered his body.” It alleges that this “brutal,” “brazen,” and “ruthless” crime was part of a “plan to permanently silence” Khashoggi to prevent him from using the US-based DAWN to push for both democratic reform and observance of human rights in Saudi Arabia.
The complaint details not only a Saudi campaign of intimidation of Khashoggi and others, but also elaborate planning and preparation of the crime.
The complaint details not only a Saudi campaign of intimidation of Khashoggi and others, but also elaborate planning and preparation of the crime. This includes hacking of mobile phones of Khashoggi associates to intercept and spy on communications regarding the establishment of DAWN and the contractual arrangement for Khashoggi to become its executive director.
Dawn’s Executive Director, Khashoggi’s successor Sarah Leah Whitson, said she is looking forward to “finally obtaining discovery of all of the evidence — including who knew what, when, in our own [US] government.”
Some recent Saudi actions indicate a newfound caution with respect to the US that was not apparent during the Trump administration’s term.
For example, the kingdom released women’s rights activist Loujain Hathloul from prison in February where she had been for two years pending trial, although letting her conviction on “terrorism,” her travel ban, and other charges stand.
The kingdom also this month once again postponed for the umpteenth time the trial of Salman Al-Awdah, a religious cleric who has been imprisoned since 2017, on 37 charges (including provoking public discord and disobeying the ruler, for tweeting a prayer calling for reconciliation with Qatar). Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Some analysts have speculated that the reason for pushing the case back may be that trying Al-Awda so close to the beginning of Biden’s presidency may jeopardize the already rocky US-Saudi relationship.
Whatever is motivating these Saudi decisions, analysts have been almost unanimous in their assessments that the promised Saudi reform generated from within has been illusory and that crackdowns on dissidents are becoming even more stringent.
Without US action to hold MbS himself accountable, all the recalibration rhetoric in the world will be merely hot air.
Without US action to hold MbS himself accountable, all the recalibration rhetoric in the world will be merely hot air. Without serious pressure from the US, there will be few if any gains in Saudi treatment of dissidents or respect for their human rights even, as civil society and family members based in the United States seek accountability in US courts.
Perhaps more egregious is the startling recent revelation by UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard that in a meeting with other senior UN officials in Geneva in January 2020, a senior Saudi official threatened to have Callamard “taken care of” if the UN did not rein her in. He made this threat about the UN official not once, but twice. The Guardian independently corroborated Callamard’s account.
Despite these death threats, Callamard remains committed to the finding in her report that the Crown Prince is responsible for the state’s extrajudicial killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as confirmed by the US intelligence agencies in the DNI’s now declassified report.
Unless the US acts to hold MbS himself accountable, all the recalibration rhetoric in the world will be merely hot air. Without serious pressure from the US, there will be little impact on the rogue state and few if any gains in Saudi treatment of dissidents or respect for their human rights, even as civil society and family members based in the United States seek accountability in US courts.