The Biden administration’s release of a CIA report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has confirmed what has been widely known since the fall of 2018: The killing was approved by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. The conclusion was based, the report said, on the crown prince’s absolute control of decision-making, the involvement in the operation of a top adviser and seven members of his personal protective detail, and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.”
That heinous crime against a permanent U.S. resident and contributing columnist to The Post should not go unpunished. Under U.S. law, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he is widely known, ought to be banned from travel to the United States and subjected to an asset freeze. That President Biden has chosen not to pursue that course suggests that the “fundamental” change he promised in U.S.-Saudi relations will not include holding to account its reckless ruler, who consequently is unlikely to be deterred from further criminal behavior.
To be sure, Mr. Biden is putting a stop to the grotesque and unprecedented coddling of Saudi Arabia by former president Donald Trump. MBS enjoyed privileged access to the White House through Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; the new administration has made clear that communication between Washington and Riyadh will occur through normal channels, with Mr. Biden speaking to King Salman, the titular head of state. Mr. Trump supplied MBS with weapons for his disastrous intervention in Yemen even after Congress prohibited it; Mr. Biden has ended the sale of those munitions.
In the end, however, the U.S.-Saudi relationship under Mr. Biden may look much like it did before the Trump administration, when the kingdom was treated as a prime U.S. ally in the Middle East. The new administration has emphasized that it will continue to sell Saudi Arabia “defensive” weapons and help defend it from attacks by Iran and its proxies. Though he may not get calls from Mr. Biden or be invited to Washington, MBS will still be engaged by high-level officials: He recently received a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
There is a pragmatic argument for that policy. MBS is still the most powerful person in the Persian Gulf region, and if, as expected, he succeeds his father as king, he may be in that position for decades. The United States still depends on Saudi Arabia for stability in the global oil market and for help with counterterrorism efforts. Under MBS, the kingdom has relaxed some domestic restrictions on women, cracked down on extremist clerics and grown more friendly toward Israel. In recent weeks, MBS has sought to appease Mr. Biden by releasing some high-profile prisoners, including American citizens, and ending a blockade of neighboring Qatar.
Mr. Biden is nevertheless granting what amounts to a pass to a ruler who has sown instability around the Middle East in recent years while presiding over the most severe repression of dissent in modern Saudi history. It is a risky course to adopt in the absence of evidence that MBS is prepared to fundamentally alter his regime. At a minimum, the administration ought to require, as a condition for normal relations, that the architect of the Khashoggi murder and other human rights offenses — Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide of MBS named in the CIA report — be brought to justice. If the criminal apparatus MBS employed against Khashoggi is not dismantled, there will be more victims.