After the disclosure of a detailed intelligence report tying journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, US President Joe Biden and his administration have been subject to the watchful eye of human rights organisations as well as some democrats in Congress.
While the US President followed through on his election promise of releasing the summary report of Khashoggi’s murder, the Biden administration did not place any sanctions targeting the Crown Prince himself.
However, the lack of punitive action against the Prince also brings into focus the complications of the decision-making processes that arise for a president versus a candidate, and illustrates the difficulty in engaging with an ally from a volatile region.
WHO WAS KHASHOGGI AND WHY WAS HE MURDERED?
Khashoggi was as US-based Journalist, a vocal critic of the Saudi regime, and had written several articles criticising Prince Mohammed in The Washington Post.
On 2 October 2018, the 59-year-old journalist who had gone into self-exile was directed by Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States to go to the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul to receive some documents for his forthcoming marriage to a Turkish national.
He was subsequently drugged, strangled, and dismembered by a group of operatives allegedly linked to the prince.
WHAT DOES THE AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE REPORT SAY?
The four-page American intelligence report, issued by Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril D Haines, made public the assessment that MSB approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The findings iterated the workings of the kingdom under the Crown Prince, which led the intelligence officials to be determined of his culpability in the crime.
Khashoggi was viewed as a threat and MSB “broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him,” the intelligence report concluded according to NYT.
In a report by NYT, it was noted that American intelligence had reflected the planning of an unspecified operation against Khashoggi. However, the findings were not certain of when the operatives had planned to harm him.
While the team, which arrived in Istanbul, prepared to murder the US-based journalist, American intelligence agencies were not confident that that was their only authorised option – they could not eliminate the possibility that the Prince might have ordered Khashoggi’s capture.
The report concluded that Prince Mohammed was responsible for an order to either capture or kill Khashoggi.
Further, the report noted that seven members of Prince Mohammed’s elite protective cell, called the Rapid Intervention Force (RIF), were part of the 15-man team that killed Khashoggi.
The RIF have a history of carrying out surveillance, torture, and a series of detentions for the purpose of silencing dissent against MSB. “Members of the RIF would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without Muhammad bin Salman’s approval,” NYT quoted the report.
Jamal Khashoggi’s body was never found, and Saudi officials had made a retained effort to deflect blame from the Crown Prince ever since the discovery of his death.
WHAT DID BIDEN SAY AFTER THE US REPORT?
Addressing the report, Biden said in a statement, “We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses and we're going to make sure that they, in fact, you know, if they want to deal with us, they have to deal with it in a way that the human rights abuses are dealt with,” CNN quoted in a report.
The Biden administration’s secretary of State, Anthony J Blinken, has since then approved travel bans and sanctions on 76 Saudi Arabs, under the recently introduced category of sanctions termed the “Kahshoggi ban”, which seeks to deny visas to individuals and organisations dedicated to crushing voices of dissidents and journalists.
The sanctions also include a travel ban on the kingdom’s former intelligence chief who was allegedly involved in Khashoggi’s assassination, and on the RIF, which is directly controlled by Prince Mohammed.
The US President had promised stringent punishments on Saudi leaders while campaigning for the presidential post. However, Biden has refused to specify any steps taken against MSB.
Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director, had told CNN on "OutFront" that Biden had called King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and informed of the US’s intolerance of the Prince's behaviour, despite the lack of state action.
Biden’s aides also said that Prince Mohammed would not be invited to the US anytime soon, The New York Times reported.
INTERESTS OR VALUES: BIDEN’S POSITION
The report’s disclosure itself highlights the contrast between the Biden and Trump administrations. Unlike the former President, the Biden administration is ostensibly seeking to acknowledge of the Prince’s role in the journalist’s assassination.
A report by CNN notes that the relationship with Riyadh is too instrumental for the Biden administration to break altogether by punishing the man who can be viewed as the one governing the kingdom.
The Trump and Biden administrations have held the view that Saudi Arabia is a critical ally on actions of counterterrorism and a regional counterweight to Iran.
Despite lack of action, Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator, hailed Biden’s efforts saying, “This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests,” NYT quoted.
“There isn’t an issue in the Middle East where we don’t need them to play a role – on Iran, on competing with the Chinese. And if you sanction the Crown Prince directly you basically create a relationship of hostility, and you force them to show that there is a high price the United States has to pay for that,” he added.
On the other hand, former national security official Andy Kim, who is currently a Democratic member of the House of Representatives’ foreign relations committee took to Twitter to express, “The lack of action against the Crown Prince sends a clear message across the globe that those at the top can escape consequences.”
The tweet emphasises the voices of human rights and journalist groups, many of which have appealed for personal sanctions on MSB. Financial Times noted that the Society of Professional Journalists had said last week that they will “continue to push for justice for Khashoggi.”
(With inputs from New York Times, CNN and Financial Times.)
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