The Biden administration welcomed to Washington this week a Saudi prince who, as ambassador to the United States, played a key role in events leading to the murder of a U.S.-resident journalist, according to U.S. intelligence. If Biden’s team is really trying to pressure Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to improve on human rights, deepening ties with his brother Khalid is exactly the wrong way to go about it.
Several top Biden officials met Tuesday and Wednesday with Prince Khalid bin Salman, the 33-year-old younger brother of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader (also known as “MBS”). Those Khalid met included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, State Department Counselor Derek Chollet and many others. The Biden team didn’t advertise Khalid’s visit to Washington, but Khalid made sure to get photos at each stop and tweet them out.
Khalid’s official title is deputy defense minister but it’s well understood he is a direct representative of MBS. According to reports and leaked documents published by the Institute for Gulf Affairs, the Biden administration has been thwarting MBS’s personal efforts to come to Washington and meet with President Biden, who promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” during his campaign. Since taking office, Biden officials have softened their tone, describing their approach to Saudi Arabia as a “recalibration … not a rupture” of the alliance.
Yet too many questions remain unanswered about the crime that was instrumental in causing that rupture in the first place: the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Some of those questions apply with particular urgency to the role Khalid, who served as the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 2017 to 2019 during the incident. As reported by The Post, the CIA concluded that Khalid personally lured Khashoggi to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, telling him in a phone call to go there and that he would be safe (though the report also noted that Khalid may not have known that Khashoggi would be killed there). Khalid denies the allegations.
“Candidate Biden promised to change this relationship in light of the Saudi government’s wanton disregard for international law.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told me. “While I’m gratified his administration banned several individuals involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, far more needs to be done to show the Saudi regime that there will be consequences for its gross human rights violations.”
A declassified summary of U.S. intelligence released by the Biden administration in February assessed that Khalid’s big brother MBS personally approved a Saudi intelligence operation in which a 15-member Saudi team traveled to Istanbul, murdered Khashoggi inside the consulate, and dismembered him with a bone saw. Yahoo News reported that the team stopped in Cairo to pick up the drugs used to subdue him.
Khalid played a disturbing role in helping his government to cover up the murder. In the days after Khashoggi disappeared, then-Ambassador Khalid assured the U.S. government, Congress and the media that the kingdom had no idea what had happened to Khashoggi, and dismissed any claims to the contrary as “absolutely false and baseless.” Khalid insisted the Saudi government was earnestly searching for his “friend” Jamal.
Khalid quietly departed Washington in 2019 under a cloud of suspicion, prompting a break in trust between the kingdom and most officials and media here. Why does the Biden administration believe he can be a trusted partner now? The National Security Council and State Department didn’t offer any answer when I asked them that question.
A senior State Department official told me, “We have made crystal clear, and will continue to do so, that the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi remains unacceptable.” The NSC put out a statement saying Sullivan and Khalid “discussed the importance of coordinating efforts to ensure a strong global economic recovery, to advance the climate agenda, and to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East,” and that Sullivan “emphasized the importance of progress in advancing human rights in the Kingdom.”
Six months into the administration, it seems fair to ask if Biden’s approach is working. If anything, MBS has intensified his crackdown on activists and dissidents of all kinds. The Saudi government continues to pursue its critics abroad, even by using their children as political hostages. On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders added MBS to their latest list of “press freedom predators,” calling the kingdom “one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists” and accusing it of using methods including "spyware, threats, abduction, torture, sexual abuse of detainees [and] solitary confinement.”
“The gruesome murder of Washington Post editorialist Jamal Khashoggi, who was hacked to pieces inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, dealt a terminal blow to any hope of being able to criticise, and exposed the extent of the brutality of the regime’s persecution of outspoken journalists, even beyond its borders,” Reporters Without Borders wrote in their report.
Simon Henderson, Saudi analyst at the Washington Institute, told me the Biden administration is trying to walk a fine line by keeping MBS at arm’s length but resuming regular business with Khalid, his closest confidant.
“The fact that he is here reflects the simply overwhelming fact that there is a lot of business to be done between Saudi Arabia and the United States on what is happening in the Middle East,” he said. “But the legacy of Jamal Khashoggi remains a dark cloud from under which it’s very difficult to see how MBS is going to exit.”
At the very least, the Biden administration should have conditioned the visit on some sign that MBS and his brother are getting the message that the kingdom’s unrestrained brutality and flagrant disregard for international laws and norms must end. That would bring Biden a step closer to fulfilling his promise to secure justice for Jamal Khashoggi and his family.