The Biden administration will announce sanctions and visa bans on Friday targeting Saudi Arabian citizens over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but it will not impose sanctions on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, U.S. officials said. U.S. President Joe Biden’s actions in the first weeks of his administration appear aimed at fulfilling campaign promises to realign Saudi ties after critics accused his predecessor, Donald Trump, of giving the Arab ally and major oil producer a pass on gross human rights violations. A senior Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the approach aims to create a new launching-off point for ties with the kingdom without breaking a core relationship in the Middle East.
Relations have been severely strained for years by the war in Yemen and the killing inside a Saudi consulate of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote columns for the Washington Post.
Importantly, the decisions appear designed to preserve a working relationship with the crown prince, even though U.S. intelligence concluded that he approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.
“The aim is a recalibration (in ties) – not a rupture. That’s because of the important interests that we do share,” the senior Biden administration official said.
The 59-year old Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 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.
The U.S. Treasury Department will place sanctions on the former deputy Saudi intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Asiri, and will announce a sanctions designation on the Saudi Royal Guard’s rapid intervention force, the administration official said.
The rapid intervention force, or RIF, was singled out in the declassified U.S. intelligence report for its role in Khashoggi’s killing.
The United States will also announce visa restrictions against more than 70 Saudi citizens as part of a new policy aimed at nations that carry out activities against journalists and dissidents beyond their borders, a second Biden administration official said. Such activities include efforts to suppress, harass, surveil, threaten or harm them.
The visa ban will also be selectively applied to family members, officials said.
“Folks from Saudi Arabia will be in this first tranche. But then it’s really a new global tool,” the second official said.
Additionally, the U.S. State Department will start documenting in its annual human rights report on programs by Saudi Arabia and other countries that monitor, harass or target dissidents and journalists, the first official said.
Riyadh eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in a “rogue” extradition operation gone wrong, but 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 prison after being forgiven by Khashoggi’s family.
Biden administration officials say the decisions on sanctions and visa bans will send a clear message about how the United States wants to see the future U.S.-Saudi relationship.
It will also still allow the United States to preserve a working relationship with the crown prince, the country’s 35-year-old de facto ruler.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has already held talks with him.
Asked about any debate about applying sanctions against the crown prince, the first U.S. official said that the United States has not generally applied sanctions “on the highest leadership of countries.”
“We really (came to) the unanimous conclusion that there are just other, more effective means to dealing with these issues going forward,” the official said.
Biden earlier this month declared a halt to U.S. support for a Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen, demanding that the more than six-year war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, had to end.