The unclassified report on Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, released last week, highlighted the limits of Joe Biden’s commitment to human rights in his foreign policy.
The report’s conclusion – incriminating Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of the Saudi journalist in 2018 – had long been known to insiders and widely suspected by many. More interesting were the potential consequences of making this conclusion public and official.
The response disappointed many in Biden’s own party and supporters of a tougher stance on human rights. Not only did the US president stop short of sanctioning the daily leader of Saudi Arabia, but he also initiated a discussion on the matter to spokespersons. When the State Department said the United States “will never check our values at the door, even when it comes to our closest security relationship,” some analysts ridiculed the comments as hollow.
The realists at the head of Biden’s Saudi policy have made it clear their reluctance to release the report under their watch – a task the Trump administration has avoided despite its legal obligations, posing a dilemma for the new administration.
Biden’s team covets Riyadh’s cooperation in intelligence, Iran, Yemen, and human rights. They argue for “recalibration” rather than “breaking” and imply that sanctions against a head of state would be the fate of only countries the United States is willing to throw adrift for a generation – like Idi Amin’s Uganda or Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.
While Prince Mohammed is not yet the head of state, his father, King Salman, is 85 and the crown prince is already a de facto ruler. Many of Washington’s foreign policy elite believe the 35-year-old is likely to take the throne before too long.
But Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer specializing in Saudi Arabia, says the Biden administration has “an exaggerated sense of the crown prince’s political position.” “They think he’s here for good, that he’ll be here for decades to come.”[but]. . . his position is much more vulnerable and he has many enemies in the kingdom.
However, Washington has long since lost confidence in its own ability to influence succession in Saudi Arabia. While senior U.S. diplomats have spoken privately on the Saudi line of succession in the past, the fury resulting from leaking such reflections has taught them to refrain from doing so. The inner workings of the royal palace in Riyadh remain cloistered.
Mohammed bin Nayef, the former interior minister who worked closely with the United States in the fight against al-Qaeda, was effectively usurped by Prince Mohammed, his much younger cousin, in 2017. He was arrested last year.
Partly because Prince Mohammed bin Salman has what the US report describes as “control over decision-making” in the kingdom and maintains “absolute control over the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations” since 2017, some experts believe that it is also impossible for the United States to target the crown prince for sanctions without effectively putting the whole country under sanctions. The economy is dominated by the state and Prince Mohammed is the supreme power.
But Yasmine Farouk, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the Biden administration’s decision to signal that it will effectively snub Prince Mohammed from now on has always hurt her.
“The report and its aftermath have dealt a blow to its prestige and it is now known that the United States will not be supported in the event of a national or regional movement against it,” she said.
Congress could still push for a more difficult position, and Prince Mohammed is highly unlikely to visit the United States – he will not be invited and his elite bodyguards are among those who are now in the subject to US sanctions.
The Biden administration hopes the move will encourage Prince Mohammed to improve his human rights record. Others also want the crown prince’s modernization plan – which should have U.S. soft power support and investment – to succeed. Riedel, however, is one of those who is not convinced. “He is very vulnerable and he badly needs American support,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we have to provide it.”