President Joe Biden is planning a major announcement on Monday concerning the future of U.S.-Saudi relations, raising the prospect that the White House is preparing to significantly downgrade ties with one of its most significant Arab allies.
So far, I haven’t seen any credible leaks suggesting what specific actions Biden is planning to take.
But given growing Iranian aggression in the region – including more missile attacks by Iranian-back Houthi terrorists in Yemen – Biden would be foolish to set into motion a train wreck of the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
Word of the impending announcement came in the wake of the administration’s declassification and release on Friday of a report summarizing the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Saudi government’s complicity in the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
The report accuses Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of having ordered the murder.
“There will be an announcement on Monday as to what we are going to be doing with Saudi Arabia generally,” Biden told reporters.
Yet I’ve read the report – it offers no new facts, no new proof whatsoever, that MBS even knew about the Khashoggi attack in advance, much less definitively ordered his murder.
More on that in moment.
The Biden administration has been saying for weeks that it is conducting a full review of U.S.-Saudi ties.
Biden has rightly expressed outrage at the Khashoggi murder. He has also expressed anger at how the kingdom is handling its ongoing war with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and a range of human rights issues.
The question is not whether the White House can and should use its considerable leverage to influence Saudi policy on a range of important issues.
The question is whether Biden – who supported the Iran nuclear deal and giving $150 billion to our enemies in Tehran – is now going to scuttle ties with a key ally against the Iranian threat.
Biden refuses to talk directly with MBS, saying he will interact only with King Salman.
On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that he was imposing visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”
Yet while accusations continue to be made, now by the Biden administration itself, no definitive proof has been publicly reported confirming that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
Critics and enemies insist that a confidential CIA report several years ago confirmed the crown prince’s guilt, but that was not exactly the case.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Dec. 1, 2018, that excerpts of the report they reviewed stated that the CIA had “medium-to-high confidence” that MBS “personally targeted” Khashoggi to be brought back to the kingdom and “probably ordered his death.”
Enemies of MBS emphasize the “high confidence.”
Allies cite the “medium confidence” and point to this line in the CIA report: “To be clear, we lack direct reporting of the crown prince issuing a kill order.”
That brings us, then, to the report the Biden team – at the insistence of Congress – released on Friday.
The bombshell line that made headlines around the world was this: “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
Anyone just reading the headlines would think that the report, written by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, contained a “smoking gun.”
Yet those who actually read the four-page report – myself included – found no new facts. There was no “smoking gun.” Indeed, no proof at all was offered that MBS ordered the murder, or even that he knew of it in advance.
Instead, peppered throughout the report are words and phrases like “probably” and “this suggests that” and “we do not know.”
The strangest section of the report read: “We have high confidence that the following individuals participated in, ordered, or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi on behalf of Muhammad bin Salman. We do not know whether these individuals knew in advance that the operation would result in Khashoggi’s death.”
The report then listed 21 Saudi officials by name, including those who were prosecuted.
Yet MBS was not listed.
Critics of the crown prince would, of course, be quickly drawn to the phrase “high confidence.”
But the closer one reads, the logic of the argument against MBS quickly breaks down.
If U.S. intelligence officials admit that they “do not know” whether the 21 “knew in advance” that the operation “would result in Khashoggi’s death,” how can they “assess” that MBS knew in advance, much less ordered or “approved” an operation to murder the journalist?
It is certainly possible that the U.S. assessment is correct.
However, the report hardly proved the case. Rather, it was full of conjecture.
At least two other scenarios are possible based on the same set of facts and conjecture.
One scenario is that people close to MBS assumed they were authorized to take care of “the Khashoggi problem,” thought MBS would be pleased by their actions, had no idea that Turkish intelligence had bugged the Saudi consulate, and set into motion a disaster MBS never imagined, much less knew about or ordered.
Another scenario is that MBS told people close to him to take care of “the Khashoggi problem,” but meant “bring him back to the kingdom for questioning” and never imagined that his subordinates would botch the operation so badly, much less that they might have committed premeditated murder.
Don’t get me wrong: There was absolutely no justification for Saudi officials to murder and dismember a Saudi journalist and dissident.
It was right that numerous officials involved in the murder were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced by a Saudi court.
But there is no justification for the Biden administration to accuse a major American ally of approving such a ghastly murder if it either has no proof, or won’t share that proof with the world.
Something here doesn’t make sense.
What exactly is Biden trying to accomplish? And what is he going to say on Monday?
Pressing MBS and the Saudis to make important reforms in the areas of its intelligence operations and human rights makes sense.
Triggering a train wreck with Riyadh does not.
Step one in Riyadh’s road to recovery, of course, absolutely has to be resolving the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
The crown prince rightly denounced the killing and said that the ultimate responsibility for making it right falls on his shoulders. He said this to me personally and in his only TV interview on the subject. In September 2019, Norah O’Donnell of CBS News’ 60 Minutes asked MBS directly: “Did you order the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?” MBS replied: “Absolutely not. This was a heinous crime. But I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia, especially since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government.”[i]
The children of Khashoggi have begun receiving financial compensation from the Saudi government, in the form of homes and significant monthly payments. “All told, the family could stand to collect more than $70 million in cash and assets,” CNN reported.[ii] The criminal investigation and trials of the murder and initial coverup are over. Initially, 18 Saudi suspects were arrested. Seven were released for lack of evidence. Eleven government officials were put on trial. In December 2019, three defendants were found not guilty and released.[iii] In September 2020, a Saudi court found eight guilty. Five were convicted of murder, for which the death penalty was the punishment. After the Khashoggi family, who still live in Saudi Arabia, reportedly forgave the men, their death sentences were commuted. All five are now serving 20-year prison terms. One Saudi official was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Two more were sentenced to seven years each. The lawyer for the Khashoggi family told reporters that “the family welcomes the ‘fair and deterrent’ ruling and is satisfied by it.”[iv]
Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée called the trials “a complete mockery of justice.”[v] Others have been highly critical of the trials, as well.
That said, one thing is clear: This has been a dark and deeply disturbing episode in the early years of MBS’s rule, one that must be made right and never repeated.
[i] “Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman denies ordering Jamal Khashoggi murder, but says he takes responsibility for it – 60 Minutes – CBS News,” Sept. 29, 2019.
[ii] Nic Robertson and Eliza Mackintosh, “Khashoggi’s children could get as much as $70 million in compensation for his killing,” CNN, April 3, 2019.
[iii] Tim Lister, “ Saudi death sentence wipes MBS’s fingerprints in Khashoggi killing,” CNN, Dec. 23, 2019.
[iv] Marwa Rashad and Raya Jalabi, “ Saudi Arabia Jails Eight over Khashoggi Murder, Fiancée Decries Trial ,” Reuters, Sept. 15, 2020.
[v] “ Jamal Khashoggi Murder: Saudi Court Commutes Death Sentences,” BBC News, Sept. 7, 2020,.