Biden Defends Exemption of Saudi Prince for Khashoggi Murder

Biden’s preference to handle the gruesome slaying diplomatically opens questions about future recalibration of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at at King Abdul Aziz race track in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for last month’s $20 million award ceremony during the final race of the Saudi Cup. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

WASHINGTON (CN) — On the campaign trail, Joe Biden said that Saudi Arabia would pay for the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. 

But on Wednesday, President Biden backed off that hard-nosed stance. 

In an ABC interview that aired Wednesday, Biden defended his decision to waive individual punishment for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after a U.S. intelligence report released in February named the country’s de facto ruler as responsible for Khasshoggi’s killing.

The U.S. has already imposed sanctions and visa restrictions on the Saudi agents who killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, under directives from the crown prince. As for the prince, however, Biden told the nation Wednesday that punishment would be diplomatically unprecedented for the United States. 

“We held accountable all the people in that organization — but not the crown prince, because we have never that I’m aware of, when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person and ostracized him,” Biden said. 

White House officials have made similar posturing in the past.

“We believe there are more effective ways to make sure that this doesn’t happen again and also to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program in February. 

Experts meanwhile say that the president may have overstated the U.S.-Saudi relationship: The kingdom is more of a strategic partner than an ally. 

The United States needs Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Middle East in its strategy for dealing with Iran. The countries also cooperate on counterterrorism and military efforts and are trading partners with Saudi oil and U.S. weapons. Because of the authoritarian state’s horrific human rights violations, however, the relationship has been rocky and faces an uncertain future. 

“The nature of the U.S. relationship with the Saudi government and royal family is sometimes characterized as a patron-client relationship,” explained Shadi Mokhtari, assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University. 

Mokhtari said the release of the report and the sanctioning of low-level officials — but not the crown prince — pushes the bounds of the relationship but doesn’t necessarily change it. 

“In a sense you’re seeing the Biden administration trying to take one step away, but not quite at the point where they are going to let go of this pact,” Mokhtari said in an interview Wednesday. 

Some Democrats have pushed Biden to punish the kingdom for the murder and reset the countries’ relationship. 

“MBS cannot be allowed to get away with monstrous murder,” Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut tweeted after the report was released, using initials in place the crown prince’s name. “This new report adds to a mounting pile of evidence that the Crown Prince is culpable for Khashoggi’s killing & cover-up. A reset in US-Saudi relations & accountability is urgently needed.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of California assured that Democrats would continue to press for accountability. 

Under the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia and the United States had a cozy relationship in which Trump increased arms sales to the kingdom and vetoed a congressional resolution to end U.S. military assistance in the Saudi war in Yemen. 

Biden has pledged to “recalibrate” the relationship, and has told Saudi King Salman, the crown prince’s father, “that things were going to change.” What that means for the Biden administration in unclear, however, it still considers Saudi Arabia as a partner in counterterrorism efforts and an ally against Iran. 

Mokhtari said Biden’s treatment of Khashoggi’s murder sheds little light on whether the U.S. is embarking on a consequential departure from its current relationship with the kingdom. 

“It is significant if it is the start, and not the end, of a shift away from the traditional relationship with the Saudis.” 

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