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Blinken says partnership with Riyadh must be 'consistent' with US values

US secretary of state decries killing of Jamal Khashoggi as 'abhorrent', and says administration is reviewing blacklisting of Yemen's Houthis
In interview with NBC, Blinken says Riyadh is an 'important partner' but Washington is reassessing ties with kingdom (AFP)
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken decried the "abhorrent" murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and suggested Washington was reassessing its relationship with Riyadh to ensure it aligned with America's interests and "values".

In an interview with NBC, taped on Sunday and partly aired on Monday afternoon, Blinken acknowledged that Riyadh is an "important" US ally, but suggested that a review of bilateral US-Saudi ties is already underway.

"The murder of Mr Khashoggi was an outrageous act against a journalist, against someone [who was] a resident of the United States. It was abhorrent, and I think it shocked the conscience of the world," the newly confirmed US chief diplomat said. 

Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist who resided in Virginia, was killed and dismembered by Saudi government agents at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

According to US media reports and lawmakers, the CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination, but Riyadh maintains that the killing was a rogue operation that happened without the knowledge of top officials.

'Important partner'

Former President Donald Trump had pushed back against congressional efforts to hold the kingdom accountable for the murder, as he continued to praise Riyadh for its arms deal with US weapons makers and role in countering Iran in the Middle East.

The previous administration has defied a legally binding request by legislators to release a declassified intelligence report identifying the Saudi officials involved in the assassination.

At a congressional hearing last month, President Joe Biden's intelligence chief Avril Haines pledged to release the report.

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On Sunday, Blinken said Biden had asked his administration to review Washington's partnership with Riyadh.

"Saudi Arabia has been an important partner for us in counterterrorism in trying to advance regional stability and deal with regional aggression. But we also have to make sure that that partnership is being conducted in a way that's consistent with our interests and also with their values," Blinken said.

"And so the president has asked that we review the relationship to make sure it is doing just that. And that's exactly what's happening now."

As a candidate, Biden pledged to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where the kingdom and its regional allies are conducting a bombing campaign against the country's Houthi rebels. 

Last week, the Biden team said it was pausing arms deals to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that were approved by the previous administration, including the sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets. 

But the White House, which has largely focused on domestic issues and the Covid-19 crisis, has not announced any major foreign policy initiatives or an end to the US role in the Yemen war.

Houthi designation

The conflict in Yemen has killed more than 100,000 people, caused outbreaks of preventable diseases and brought the already impoverished country to the verge of famine.

The Saudi coalition started its intervention in March 2015 to restore the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, but after nearly six years of fighting, the Houthi rebels remain in control of the capital Sanaa as well as most of the population centres in the war-torn country.

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Riyadh accuses the Houthis of being Iranian proxies, but the Yemeni rebels deny receiving material support from Tehran.

In its final days, the Trump administration designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation, against the pleas of humanitarian organisations who warned that blacklisting the rebels may hinder delivering assistance to areas under their control.

On Sunday, Blinken reiterated his previous pledge to review the designation. 

"The president has said that we will stop our support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen," Blinken told NBC.

"But we also have to step up our ability to get humanitarian assistance to people in Yemen, who are suffering terribly; 80 percent of them live under Houthi control. We want to make sure that anything we do does not make it more difficult to get humanitarian assistance for the people."