Global Affairs

The Biden-Khashoggi controversy

On October 2nd, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, critic of the Saud Arabian Kingdom and their abuses of human rights, visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to receive some papers for a forthcoming marriage. However, his visit there turned ended in his assassination. A few weeks later, a cover story attempting to show that he left the consulate unharmed was disproved, raising suspicion of Saudi Arabia’s involvement, yet this proceeded to nothing more at the time.

The events of October 2018 have resurfaced once more following the release last week of new evidence on the Khashoggi murder by the US intelligence services; this evidence all but directly indicated that the person who orchestrated the murder of Khashoggi was the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, also referred to as MBS. This has led to an outcry from various institutions, including both Democrats and Republicans in the US government itself.

Nonetheless, there has been a weak response on behalf of President Joe Biden, who during his campaign referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state” but appears to have slightly adjusted his stance now. The response at present simply indicated that bin Salman would not be welcomed to the US any time soon, as well as involving sanctions on some low-level officials linked to the Prince. Currently, there are a series of sanctions that will be imposed on various Saudi officials and members of the royal family, known as the “Khashoggi ban”. This will only restrict the visas of around 76 Saudis suspected of having taken part in state-sponsored attempts to harass or harm dissidents or journalists around the world.

However, there have been various calls for direct action against Mohammed bin Salman, particularly in the form of a travel ban, from human rights groups and individuals such as the Democrat Representative of New Jersey, Tom Malinowski. The US government has imposed travel bans on Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, who was involved with the Khashoggi murder. It has also targeted the Rapid Intervention Force, a paramilitary group of the Saudi Royal Guard under the direct command of bin Salman, due to their suspected involvement in conducting the operation at the Consulate in Istanbul. Despite this, there has been little action taken to hold MBS himself to account. 

While Biden was applauded for following on his campaign promise and releasing the summary report on the murder, something that President Trump had avoided and buried during his time in office, he has faced backlash for his response to it. Logistically speaking, sanctioning bin Salman could bring diplomatic complications considering his position. As the future king, he is a geostrategic ally of the US, especially when it comes to keeping Iran in check. Biden and his aides would instead prefer to find a mutual agreement with Saudi Arabia where this does not happen again and is also in the national interest for the US, taking a more diplomatic approach than what he promised in his presidential campaign.

Yet by refusing to sanction MBS, even symbolically through a travel ban, the US sent a strong and dangerous message to the Crown Prince that he is too powerful, creating the potential for such an event to repeat itself in the future. He faces no fear of any retaliation from his allies, putting other dissidents and journalists around the world in a similarly precarious position to Khashoggi. Biden is therefore seen as putting the relationship of the US with Saudi Arabia before the importance of respecting human rights.

This has also raised doubt about the Biden administration itself and its campaign promises regarding Saudi Arabia. President Biden has taken some new measures earlier this month, by banning billions of dollars of arms shipments to Saudi Arabia, in order to curb the current war in Yemen which he described as a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”. But his lack of enthusiasm in trying to bring those implicated in the Khashoggi murder to justice, in particular bin Salman, makes us wonder how far this administration is really willing to go to reshape its relationship with Saudi Arabia.