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The imminent release of a US intelligence report on the killing of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi will serve as the first big test of the Biden administration’s promise to recalibrate relations with Riyadh.
The report’s release is expected as early as Friday, after Joe Biden on Thursday spoke to Saudi Arabia’s ruler King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud for the first time since taking office, clearing one of the final hurdles set by the White House to make it public.
The Biden administration’s promised reset of relations with the Gulf kingdom — whose leaders nurtured close ties with Donald Trump — could be complicated by the degree to which the unclassified version of the report implicates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s death.
UN officials previously concluded there was “credible evidence” that the kingdom’s de facto leader was responsible for the 2018 killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and several US lawmakers have claimed there was “zero doubt” the crown prince was involved. Prince Mohammed has taken “full responsibility” for the murder but has denied ordering the killing, which he has described as a “heinous crime”.
While Biden has pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and put human rights at the forefront of his foreign policy, some senior aides have also warned against imposing sanctions personally on Prince Mohammed over his alleged link to the killing. They have argued doing so would rupture a relationship the US still sees as crucial to its regional priorities, including ending the war in Yemen and re-engaging with Iran.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters earlier on Thursday that “a range of actions . . . are on the table”.
Two people in touch with administration officials said Washington’s response could include a combination of actions from both the Treasury and state departments, including sanctions and visa restrictions on other individuals named in the report.
How exactly the US will respond is “the $64,000 question”, said Gerald Feierstein, a former senior state department official during the Obama administration who worked on the Middle East.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who specialised in Saudi Arabia, said he sensed “considerable division” within the Biden administration over the response it should take.
“Assuming [the report] states clearly that MBS is a murderer then how do you not sanction him?” said Riedel.
The Trump administration has already imposed sanctions against 17 Saudi officials, but Trump stood by Prince Mohammed and failed to make the intelligence report public, despite being legally required to do so.
Chris Murphy, Democratic senator from Connecticut, told news channel MSNBC that he wanted “a much broader set of accountability measures” for anyone involved in the murder, identifying financial sanctions and visa withdrawals. He is among a number of members of Congress who have called for the US to take tougher action against the kingdom.
There was “no way” Khashoggi’s murder was carried out without either the knowledge or direction of Prince Mohammed, who also serves as the kingdom’s defence minister, Murphy said.
The White House has already said Biden will not speak directly to Prince Mohammed, whose direct counterpart is US defence secretary Lloyd Austin, but is keen to preserve the countries’ relationship. According to a White House readout of his conversation with King Salman, Biden said he wanted to “make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible”.
If the Biden team judges that targeting Prince Mohammed could backfire, it could instead “try to snub him or limit his role in the bilateral relationship”, said Yasmine Farouk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Tamara Wittes, a senior fellow expert at the Brookings Institution, suggested the US could expel Saudi diplomats because the killing took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in violation of the Vienna Convention. But she added that Riyadh could still avoid the toughest sanctions by taking more responsibility for the crime.
“I don’t think realistically it’s a question of blacklisting the crown prince of Saudi Arabia,” she said. “The ball is in the Saudi court to take full responsibility.”
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