Those words ring awkwardly now. Sure, the Biden administration is turning the page on “the grotesque and unprecedented coddling of Saudi Arabia by former president Donald Trump,” as a Post editorial noted. But Biden opted to eschew direct punitive measures on the crown prince for his role in Khashoggi’s assassination, even after his administration released a U.S. intelligence report that confirmed the U.S. assessment that the crown prince had approved of the operation in 2018 to target Khashoggi.
“Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization,” read the report.
But the White House has opted against imposing direct sanctions on the crown prince. “The relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a Friday news conference. The Biden administration did pass sanctions on other prominent Saudi figures linked to the crown prince and introduced the “Khashoggi ban” — visa restrictions for foreign governments found implicated in “serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.”
To many liberal commentators, activists and politicians, this is not enough. The Open Society Justice Initiative, which has been fighting in court since early last year for the release of intelligence on the Khashoggi murder, said “the U.S. and other governments must take immediate measures to hold the Crown Prince and the Saudi government accountable for their flagrant disregard for the rule of law.”
Some commentators want to see the crown prince subject to the same U.S. bans and restrictions slapped on perceived adversaries in Venezuela and North Korea. “Instead of imposing sanctions on M.B.S., Biden appears ready to let the murderer walk,” wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, using a common abbreviation for the crown prince’s name. “The weak message to other thuggish dictators considering such a murder is: Please don’t do it, but we’ll still work with you if we have to.”
“The lack of action against the Crown Prince sends a clear message across the globe that those at the top can escape consequences,” tweeted Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.). “When we make exceptions for our allies in situations like this, we project to the rest of the world that our values only go as far as our relationships. We show countries like Russia and China that we may have convictions, but consequences are never guaranteed.”
Those exceptions, others would argue, were baked into decades of American foreign policy. Strategists in Washington have long enabled or at least tolerated a catalogue of human rights-abusing potentates for reasons of geopolitical expediency, and this is no different. “The underlying geopolitical reality remains unchanged,” wrote the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood. “And the reality in Saudi Arabia is that the United States is, not for the first or last time, stuck in a miserable situation, and the end of this sordid episode will probably be an American official shaking hands, once again, with a murderer.”
Biden and his allies say they have embarked on a “recalibration” of U.S.-Saudi ties. That gentler approach, experts argue, is more practical than the possible rupture that sanctions on the crown prince could provoke, especially at a time when Biden needs Riyadh on his side amid other challenges in the Middle East. Nevertheless, left-leaning activists stress that the Saudis no longer have the same oil-driven leverage they perhaps had over Washington a generation ago and that Trump’s cynical and transactional embrace of the Saudis needlessly emboldened the brash crown prince.
The “recalibration” is already on view with Biden’s freezing of arms sales to Riyadh that were greenlit by Trump over the objections of Congress. It would also involve keeping the crown prince — who had a famously direct line to the White House via Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — at arm’s length and even possibly working to convince the Saudi king to reconsider the line of succession and bring a number of rival royals sidelined by the crown prince out from the cold.
There’s a clear incentive for the Saudis to course correct. The Arabs “need to grow up,” a senior Israeli defense official told journalist Neri Zilber, writing in Newlines magazine. “They don’t need to arrest every activist, and they don’t need to pick a fight with Congress.”
At the same time, the crown prince is the most influential figure in arguably the most important Arab country in the Middle East for American interests — and, given his youth, could remain in place for half a century to come. U.S. policymakers have to reckon with a future shaped by the crown prince’s ambitious plans for modernization.
“MBS has accelerated an economic and social transition that is necessary and should be encouraged. Eventually moving toward ‘normality’ will mean either revolution in Saudi Arabia, or a less authoritarian government,” wrote Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Biden should help support Saudi Arabia in this transition. But to avoid the Iran model, i.e., Saudi Arabia going through a violent revolution and 40 years of hostility toward the U.S., Biden should support Saudi normalization, despite MBS’ murderous despotism.”
That’s cold comfort for Khashoggi and his allies. In an interview with Today’s WorldView, Omar Abdulaziz, a Canada-based Saudi dissident and friend of Khashoggi, pointed to the mysterious disappearance of another Saudi dissident based in Canada just last month after he entered the Saudi embassy in Ottawa (he later emerged in Saudi Arabia, in circumstances that activists fear may have compromised a whole network of dissidents abroad). Abdulaziz said some of his relatives and friends have been thrown into prison because of the regime’s dissatisfaction with his dissident views.
“Releasing the report and naming MBS is a good step,” Abdulaziz said. “But the CIA knew that other people got hurt by the Saudi regime and did nothing.”