If putting a halt to a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia were not enough, the Biden administration is now set to hit Riyadh where it hurts the most, by releasing a CIA report on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Will this move mark a big shift in the US’ policy toward the Arab world and if the stage is set for a bigger confrontation?
According to news agency Reuters, a declassified US intelligence report finds that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) allegedly approved the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The report, prepared on the basis of inputs from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is expected to be released on Thursday (February 28).
Quoting four US officials, Reuters said the report assessed that MBS, the de facto Saudi ruler, might have ordered the murder of Khashoggi, whose column in The Washington Post had taken a swipe at the crown prince’s policies.
Khashoggi, 59, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, and killed by a team of operatives linked to the crown prince. They then dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.
President Joe Biden told the American media that he had read the report and would speak with Saudi Arabian King Salman, 85, father of MBS.
The move assumes significance as it comes barely five weeks after Biden succeeded Donald Trump, who seemed to have been lenient on Riyadh’s human rights record and its intervention in Yemen’s civil war. Trump was also accused of shielding the Saudi crown prince from scrutiny from global forums in the Khashoggi murder case.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden would only communicate with the Saudi king and said the declassified Khashoggi report was being readied for release soon.
While Saudi Arabia had admitted that Khashoggi was killed in a ‘rogue’ extradition operation gone wrong, it denied any involvement by the crown prince. Five men given the death penalty for the murder had their sentences commuted to 20 years in jail after being forgiven by Khashoggi’s family.
In 2019, a UN human rights investigator, Agnes Callamard, accused Riyadh of a “deliberate, premeditated execution” of Khashoggi and called for further investigation.
Weapons’ Deal Under Review
Earlier this month, the Biden administration had imposed a temporary freeze on billions of dollars in weapons sales to two countries, including the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and F-35 fighters to the UAE, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In May 2019, Trump had declared a national emergency over tensions with Iran to sidestep objections from Congress about the sale of $8bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan.
The Trump administration also authorized $290 million worth of small munition sales to Saudi Arabia last December.
As reported by The Eurasian Times, the sales have been paused as part of a review of multibillion-dollar arms agreements made under the Trump administration. New Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has defined the review as “to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives, and advances our foreign policy”.
A former senior Obama administration official told CNBC that the resetting of ties means the relationship is going to go back to strategic and values-based, which wasn’t done in four years. Experts have described the relationship with the kingdom under Trump as “permissive”.