The Biden administration is young, but is facing its first pushback from fellow Democrats on foreign policy — and that is over how much to punish Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for the murder of U.S. resident and prominent Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
The disclosure last week by the Biden administration of a U.S. intelligence community finding that the prince "approved an operation … to capture or kill" Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, in 2018 was applauded by Democrats. But some said they would push for harsher consequences for the crown prince.
In releasing the declassified assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the administration was complying with a recent law passed by Congress, one that the Trump administration had refused to comply with.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., welcomed the disclosure but said more action was necessary. “As the crown prince continues to demonstrate no remorse for his actions and to shield senior Saudi officials from accountability for their role in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, the Biden administration will need to follow this attribution of responsibility with serious repercussions against all of the responsible parties it has identified.”
The Treasury Department announced on Friday it was applying Global Magnitsky sanctions against Saudi Arabia’s former deputy head of intelligence, who is accused of masterminding the assassination, and the crown prince’s elite personal protective detail, the Rapid Intervention Force, which carried out the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. Magnitsky measures allow the Treasury to sanction foreign officials implicated in human rights abuses against journalists and dissidents.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also announced the State Department was imposing travel bans on 76 Saudi individuals, whose names are not being released, and who are “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”
Additionally, the department announced that its annual human rights report would have expanded reporting around incidents where countries harass or target dissidents, activists and journalists living abroad.
But Democrats pushed for tougher consequences.
“We remain far from delivering justice for Mr. Khashoggi and his family,” senior Senate Foreign Relations member Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said in a statement, calling on the administration to impose harsher Magnitsky sanctions, which Cardin wrote into law in 2016, on “all those found responsible for the brutal murder of Mr. Khashoggi. …Now is the time to send a clear signal that extrajudicial killings are universally unacceptable and that no one is above the law.”
Travel ban for crown prince
Human rights activists were even less constrained than Democrats in voicing their disappointment with the administration for not using its sanctioning powers directly against the prince.
Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi dissident living in exile in Montreal, said he feared that Salman might conclude from the experience that he is able to get away with the murder of U.S. residents and thus feel more empowered to carry out additional acts of intimidation and murder against critics of his regime.
“Until now, nothing has changed. If Mohammed bin Salman is not going to be sanctioned, he is going to repeat his mistakes, but this time he is going to try to cover them, doing them in a better way, that’s it,” Abdulaziz, who closely collaborated with Khashoggi before his murder, told CQ Roll Call.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoed this concern in a Friday press call.
“If the Saudis can get away with killing a U.S. resident in a foreign consulate and not suffer any consequences, it will be open season on journalists everywhere,” Wyden said, noting he is the son of a journalist.
“I do believe that there ought to be personal consequences for MBS. We’re talking here about financial, travel and legal [repercussions],” the senator said, using the nickname for the crown prince, who has a vast personal fortune, including yachts and mansions in other countries.
Also critical of the lack of a ban on the prince traveling to the United States were Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and House Foreign Affairs Vice Chair Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who served as an assistant secretary of State for human rights during the Obama administration.
In a joint statement, the duo noted that a provision in the fiscal 2021 omnibus spending law passed in December was “unequivocal” in requiring that “officials of foreign governments and their immediate family members about whom the secretary of State has credible information have been involved, directly or indirectly in…a gross violation of human rights shall be ineligible for entry into the United States.”
On Monday, Malinowski introduced legislation that would impose a travel ban on any individuals named in the ODNI report about Khashoggi’s murder, including the crown prince. A waiver is included in the proposal but the president would have to publicly notify Congress two weeks ahead of issuing any visa for designated individuals. The bill would further require Foggy Bottom to regularly report on whether Riyadh’s behavior has triggered a statute that bans weapon exports to nations that intimidate or harass people living in the United States.
No direct sanctions on prince
State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday would not say if the administration had decided to exercise the waiver included in the omnibus law as it relates to any potential future travel plans to the country by the crown prince.
The White House on Monday also defended its decision not to impose direct sanctions on the crown prince while not ruling out any possibility of sanctions occurring in the future.
“Of course, we reserve the right to take any action at a time and manner of our choosing,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a press conference in response to a question on whether the administration would ever contemplate sanctioning the crown prince.
Price expanded slightly on the administration’s rationale for not directly penalizing the crown prince, making a realpolitik argument for why the United States needed to keep other priorities in mind when weighed against the outrage over Khashoggi’s killing.
“It is undeniable that Saudi Arabia is a hugely influential country in the Arab world and beyond. What happens in Saudi Arabia will and has had profound implications well beyond Saudi Arabia’s borders,” Price said. “To be sure, the choices that Riyadh makes will have outsized implications for the region and outsized implications for … countries beyond the region including for the United States.”
The Biden administration wants the help of Saudi Arabia — the largest economy in the Middle East and one with preeminent influence among Arab countries — in its strategy for dealing with Iran. During the Obama administration, opposition by Riyadh to the multinational nuclear agreement with Iran became an important rallying point for domestic and international critics of the deal, which is now on life-support after persistent attempts by the Trump administration to kill it.
The United States also still relies on Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism cooperation, particularly in the intelligence realm, in the fight against al-Qaida.
Price suggested that direct sanctions on the kingdom’s de facto ruler would be counter-productive if they led to a breakdown in strategic relations with Riyadh.
“We feel that we can have the most influence over this partnership when it is cast as a recalibration and not a rupture,” he told reporters. “Were there to be something more dramatic…than what we have talked about, I think the influence we would have over any foreign leader…would be greatly diminished.”
Republicans generally silent
Compared to the outpouring of anger and demands for accountability from Democrats following the release of the ODNI report, Republicans have mostly stayed silent, out of concern partly for saying something that would spark the wrath of former President Donald Trump, who continues to maintain a grip over the party.
House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul of Texas was one of the few Republicans to discuss the subject. On Friday, he told NBC he believes there “should be consequences” for Riyadh for Khashoggi’s murder though he did not explicitly call for the sanctioning of the crown prince.
McCaul indicated he was concerned the Khashoggi assassination would harm prospects for the United States to persuade Saudi Arabia to open diplomatic relations with Israel.
“The downside to all of this is that we are finally moving forward with a partnership with the Saudi royal family…they are coming in line with Israel, against the biggest threat in the region and that is Iran,” he said. “The geopolitical issue gets very messy, very tricky now in light of [Khashoggi’s] murder…Saudi was going to be kind of the real prize here to get them to join the Abraham Accords. This has been a real step back.”
Embarrassing Trump communications
Wyden said he believed the administration should take further steps to declassify communications between Salman and senior members of the Trump administration, including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The former senior presidential adviser struck up a friendship with the crown prince and would reportedly communicate with him via texting apps outside of regular diplomatic channels.
“There is more we still don’t know, like the relationship between Jared Kushner and MBS. I hope that in the coming months we’ll know more about that,” Wyden said. “My sense is that there is considerably more that can be declassified here and in many other areas of government in a way that ensures that the American people’s safety is protected.”
Some of Salman's critics like Abdulaziz want the administration to release embarrassing communications with senior Trump officials, which possibly could be damaging enough to deter further foreign investment and tourism to the kingdom.
If the costs of keeping the crown prince in power become too high, the thinking goes, then a critical mass of the ruling Saudi royal family and, importantly, the country’s nominal ruler, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, might decide to remove him from power.
“In Saudi Arabia, we do have alternatives other than Mohammed bin Salman,” Abdulaziz said. “Mohammed bin Salman is not Saudi Arabia.”
U.S. businesses hedge their bets
In the weeks after Khashoggi’s fall 2018 assassination, the international business community tried to give the appearance of publicly distancing itself from cash-rich Saudi Arabia, with many Western business executives and government officials canceling or trying to downplay their participation in the kingdom’s annual investment conference, nicknamed “Davos in the Desert.”
But that isolation didn’t last long as companies and financial services firms seemingly couldn’t stay away for long from the kingdom, which is attempting to wean its economy off its decades-long dependence on oil sales. At last week’s investment conference in Riyadh, a number of business leaders from well-known brands were scheduled to address the gathering, including executives from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, SoftBank, Credit Suisse and Nasdaq, according to The New York Times.
“Gone are the days when the leaders of the financial services industry stayed away, fearing the reputational costs of becoming associated with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, wrote in an op-ed for Foreign Policy last week. “Investors have now decided there are deals to be done. They are making a bet that the stated commitment by human rights organizations, journalists, and a relatively bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers to hold Saudi Arabia accountable doesn’t amount to much — and they may be right.”