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Opinion Biden’s risky outreach to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince

Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman appears in this image taken on Aug. 29, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP, File)

Prince Khalid bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is hardly a household name but should be notorious. As the oil-rich kingdom’s ambassador to Washington in the fall of 2018, he assured journalist and Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi he could safely collect some papers he needed at the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, according to CIA analysis that has been reported in The Post. Khashoggi went in but never emerged; he was murdered by Saudi agents. The then-ambassador may not have known that Khashoggi would be killed. Wittingly or not, however, he subsequently falsely told various news outlets, The Post included, that the Saudi government had no idea where Khashoggi was. Khalid bin Salman denies that he told Khashoggi to go to Istanbul. His credibility in Washington badly damaged, he returned to Saudi Arabia in February 2019.

Now, though, the prince is back. On May 17, he made an official visit to Washington, including meetings with national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior U.S. officials. It would actually be more accurate to say that he was back again, since he was also in D.C. in July of last year. Both times, he came as the emissary of his older brother, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — “MBS” — the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and the alleged intellectual author of Khashoggi’s murder. Khalid bin Salman’s first visit was a general diplomatic mission; the most recent one seems to have included preliminary discussion of a meeting between MBS and President Biden, possibly this summer. That ought not happen.

Remember Mr. Biden’s promise, during his presidential campaign, to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” — and not only because of the Khashoggi assassination? Saudi Arabia treats domestic dissidents harshly and continues to wage a destructive war in neighboring Yemen, though a tentative U.S.-backed cease-fire is currently in place. Mr. Biden began his term by making public U.S. intelligence confirming MBS’s role in the Khashoggi case and refusing to deal directly with the crown prince. But Mr. Biden did not impose an asset freeze and U.S. travel ban on MBS, as he could and should have done. Furious nevertheless, MBS refused subsequent outreach from the president and snubbed U.S. requests to help alleviate rising oil prices by pumping more Saudi crude.

Elections are coming in this country, gas prices are at all-time highs and Mr. Biden may be about to give MBS the face-to-face recognition he craves — with more oil to follow. The official White House summary of the meeting between Khalid bin Salman and Mr. Sullivan said they discussed “coordinating efforts to ensure global economic resilience” — diplomatic parlance for increasing the Saudi oil supply. In fairness, the war in Ukraine, unanticipated at the beginning of Mr. Biden’s term, has unsettled global energy markets, imposing costs on our European allies as well as the United States. If Mr. Biden makes concessions — we grope for a better word — to MBS, it would be on behalf of others as well as himself.

Still, the contrast between professed U.S. principles and U.S. policy would be stark and undeniable. For decades, U.S. presidents have indulged the Saudi regime, based on a sometimes exaggerated sense of its strategic importance. How much longer?

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

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