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Biden calls Saudi King Salman ahead of release of Khashoggi report

White House statement on call did not mention journalist, but imminent release of US report on his murder is set to shake ties
The Biden administration has said it will release the US intelligence community's findings on the murder (AFP/File photo)
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President Joe Biden held his first phone call with Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Thursday, ahead of the release of a long-awaited report by the US intelligence community on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

In a statement describing the call, the White House did not mention the Khashoggi report. It said the conversation was on "the longstanding partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia".

White House officials had said the report on Khashoggi's murder would not be made public until the call had taken place, but by the end of the business day, it appeared the release of the findings was postponed.

Earlier in the day, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated the administration's position that Biden would deal with King Salman as the head of state in Saudi Arabia, bypassing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to be behind Khashoggi's killing.

Riyadh's changing story on Khashoggi killing

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4 October 2018: The consulate-general of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul says it is "following up" on the disappearance of Khashoggi, coordinating with Turkish law enforcement on his whereabouts "after he left the consulate building".

5 October 2018: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, speaking to Bloomberg: "He's a Saudi citizen and we are very keen to know what happened to him. And we will continue our dialogue with the Turkish government to see what happened to Jamal there."

8 October 2018: Saudi ambassador to the US tells the Washington Post it would be "impossible" for Khashoggi to have been killed by consulate staff and for his death to have been covered up without them being aware of it.

19 October 2018: Saudi Arabia admits on state TV that Khashoggi did not leave the consulate as originally claimed, but says he was killed in a “fistfight” in the building.

21 October 2018: An anonymous Saudi official tells Reuters that the team of 15 Saudi nationals sent to confront Khashoggi in the consulate had threatened him with being drugged and abducted and then killed him with a chokehold when he resisted. Other Saudi officials confirm the chokehold account.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir, speaking to Fox News: "This was an operation that was a rogue operation. This was an operation where individuals ended up exceeding the authorities and responsibilities they had. They made a mistake when they killed Jamal Khashoggi in the consulate, and they tried to cover up for it."

25 October 2018: Saudi prosecutor says the killing of Khashoggi was "premeditated" based on Turkish authorities' evidence and not an accident as they previously suggested.

15 November 2018: After investigations carried out by the Saudi public prosecutor in Istanbul, his office says that 11 Saudi nationals have been indicted and charged with murdering Khashoggi and that five of those will face the death penalty.

"The head of the negotiation team concluded that it would not be possible to transfer the victim by force to the safe location in case the negotiations with him to return failed. The head of the negotiation team decided to murder the victim if the negotiations failed. The investigation concluded that the incident resulted in murder," says the prosecutor, adding that the head of the mission had written a  "false report" that Khashoggi had left the building.

29 September 2019: Mohammed bin Salman on whether he ordered Khashoggi's killing: "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."

The ailing 85-year-old king, who spent time in hospital last year, has largely stepped back from an active role in diplomacy and government, though reports of his declining health have been denied by Saudi officials.

"The president will be engaged with his appropriate counterparts," Psaki said.

In its statement on the call between the US president and the Saudi king, the White House did not make any reference to points of contention between Riyadh and Washington, including Khashoggi and halting US support for the war in Yemen.

"The President told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible," it said. "The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest."

Still, the release of the Khashoggi report by the director of national intelligence (DNI), which NBC and Reuters have reported will place blame on Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, for the murder, will inevitably shake US-Saudi ties.

'Wounded' MBS

Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC, said the report will leave MBS "morally, politically and legally wounded" and cast a shadow over the legitimacy of his claim to the crown.

"This is from the United States, so it carries weight," Harb told MEE.

He added that Biden will likely take action against MBS, including imposing sanctions on the crown prince because of the growing anger against Saudi Arabia in Washington, especially amongst Democrats.

"Joe Biden cannot let this thing go," Harb said. "There is a lot of pressure on Joe Biden inside the United States - from Congress, from the press, from public opinion - about what to do with this guy if the DNI report does say that he was responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi."

Saudi government agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, a critic of MBS, at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Riyadh initially insisted that the journalist had left the building alive before eventually conceding - more than two weeks after the assassination - that he was killed.

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But Saudi officials still insist that the assassination was a rogue operation that happened without the approval or knowledge of top leaders.

The 2018 murder rocked US-Saudi relations with congressional leaders from both major parties demanding accountability for the killing of Khashoggi, who was a US resident.

The CIA had reportedly assessed with confidence that MBS had personally ordered the killing. In June 2019, Agnes Callamard, a UN human rights investigator, said it was "inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the crown prince being aware."

But then-President Donald Trump moved to shield Saudi royals, particularly MBS, from criticism - often citing the kingdom's arms deals with US weapons manufacturers and its geopolitical role as a regional counterweight to Iran.

According to a 2020 book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward, Trump bragged about protecting the crown prince saying: "I saved his ass."

Amid reluctance from the previous administration to take meaningful steps against the kingdom, late in 2019, Congress included a provision in the defence budget requiring DNI to submit an unclassified report to lawmakers that would identify any Saudi officials who ordered or had advanced knowledge of the assassination. 

The Trump administration refused to release the report, arguing that it would compromise the sources and methods of US intelligence agencies. 

'Pariah'

As a candidate, Biden issued harsh words for Saudi Arabia as he criticised Trump for his close relationships with autocrats. During a Democratic debate, he called the kingdom a "pariah".

After assuming office, Biden halted US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, froze an arms deal with the kingdom authorised by the previous administration, and his intelligence chief Avril Haines committed to releasing the Khashoggi report. 

But rights advocates and lawmakers want more clarity on the details of US policies towards the kingdom, especially in Yemen. The US administration had reaffirmed Washington's commitment to the kingdom's security.

On Thursday, the US State Department said special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking "expressed gratitude for Saudi Arabia's generous support over the decades for the people of Yemen" after a meeting with the kingdom's finance minister, Mohammed al-Jadaan.

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And Secretary of State Tony Blinken has been in regular contact with Saudi officials. On Thursday, he had a phone conversation with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan.

Advocacy groups have been calling for meaningful consequences for Riyadh over the killing of Khashoggi ahead of the report.

"This confirmation of bin Salman's role underscores the urgent need for a new approach to the US-Saudi relationship," William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, said in a statement on Thursday. 

"The Saudi regime must be held accountable for its crimes at home and abroad, including not only the Khashoggi murder but in its central role in creating the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen."

Late in 2018, Washington announced sanctions against 17 Saudi individuals, including senior MBS adviser Saud al-Qahtani for "having a role in the killing". At the time, critics said the measures were not sufficient because they did not punish the officials who ordered the assassination.

On Thursday, Mike Eisner, general counsel at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a rights group envisioned by Khashoggi that was fully established last year, said the sanctions should be imposed on the crown prince himself.

"It's a simple proposition without which there can be no justice for Kashoggi: the Biden administration, as well as the European Union, the UK and Canada, must apply the same standard of justice to the commander of the execution as levied against the foot soldiers," Eisner told MEE.