A US intelligence report has revealed that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally approved an operation to capture or kill dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The damming findings of the declassified report released on Friday say that the prince, who is known as MBS and is the de-facto leader of the kingdom, is responsible for Khashoggi’s murder and that he gave the green light to a plan to either “capture or kill” the exiled journalist, who was a critic of the Saudi government.
Many Saudis loyal to the crown prince say that Washington’s decision is politically motivated.
“Washington wants to impose a new policy on Riyadh, especially with the de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, by pressing him through this report,” a Saudi official at the Foreign Ministry in Riyadh told The Media Line.
It puts long-known but informal US conclusions that MBS was probably responsible for an operation to kill or kidnap Jamal Khashoggi in a more formal manner
The official, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, says the US administration has a lot to lose by taking this stance.
“The US government harmed its position when it released the report without any hard evidence, which weakened the credibility of this report. America does not want justice for Khashoggi, this is not true. Government policies are not built like that,” the official said.
Dr. Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that the report is harmful to US-Saudi relations.
“It’s damaging, because it puts long-known but informal US conclusions that MBS was probably responsible for an operation to kill or kidnap Jamal Khashoggi in a more formal manner,” he said.
Ibish says that, despite the argument of some defenders of the crown prince that there is no “smoking gun,” the released findings “means people can say categorically, the CIA believes with ‘medium to high levels of certainty’ that the crown prince was responsible.”
President Joe Biden’s administration imposed sanctions on the Rapid Intervention Force, a unit of the Saudi Royal Guard that answers directly to the crown prince, which is accused of being behind the gruesome murder of Khashoggi. The sanctions effectively ban 76 Saudi nationals from entering the US.
But the administration stopped short of imposing sanctions on the powerful 35-year-old crown prince.
“There is no precedent for the United States doing that to the de facto head of government, although not head of state, of an allied country,” said Ibish, adding that despite the presence of a “powerful moral case,” the US-Saudi relationship is mutually beneficial, and any extreme steps taken by the US may jeopardize the relationship.
The intelligence assessment was based on the “crown prince’s control of decision-making in the kingdom.”
These aren’t new findings, but the previous administration had suppressed the report.
Biden, unlike his predecessor, who had a warm relationship with MBS, is leading a new and tougher policy toward the oil-rich kingdom.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy also based in Washington, told The Media Line that releasing the report “removes any room for denial” of the role MBS had in the horrific murder.
Cafiero says that the White House has put itself in an awkward position by releasing the report.
“The fact of the matter is that MBS has so much power in the kingdom and that the Biden Administration will have no choice but to work with the crown prince, notwithstanding rhetoric about justice for Khashoggi,” he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the White House is working to “recalibrate” the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, adding that there are areas about which the administration will “express concerns, and leave open the option of accountability.”
“It means making sure that the US reassures Saudi Arabia that it is really committed to the country’s core security despite negotiations and agreements with Iran and lessening the US footprint, especially militarily, in the Gulf region,” said Ibish.
Meanwhile, the Biden Administration has tried to limit the fallout of findings of this report.
Ibish believes the release of the report may, in fact, help both countries.
“It can serve to clear the decks. Donald Trump didn’t do the US-Saudi partnership any favors by suppressing this report, the existence and substance of which was already very well known,” he said.
Ibish says that keeping the report hidden “created the atmosphere of a cover-up and prevented Americans from seriously evaluating what, exactly, their government thinks and knows about this atrocity.”
Some call the latest development a reset to the relationship between the two close strategic allies.
Trump turned a blind eye to the country’s human rights record. His policies toward the young and powerful crown prince, some say, gave MBS a cover. That is changing under President Biden.
Cafiero says it is not President Biden’s intention to “sideline” MBS. But he adds that “even if Biden had this intention, it is highly doubtful that a US president could influence King Salman to put a different member of the Al Saud family in the crown prince’s position.”
But he says the latest actions by the US administration were imposed for a reason.
“It appears that a main goal of Biden is to establish boundaries and red lines for MBS, ultimately giving the crown prince incentive to never carry out another act like the Khashoggi murder in the future,” he said.
It can serve to clear the decks. Donald Trump didn’t do the US-Saudi partnership any favors by suppressing this report, the existence and substance of which was already very well known
The crown prince continues to deny any involvement.
In a September 2019 interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Bin Salman vehemently denied ordering the killing of Khashoggi.
“Absolutely not. This was a heinous crime. But I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia, especially that it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government,” he told reporter Norah O’Donnell. “When a crime is committed against a Saudi citizen by officials, working for the Saudi government, as a leader I must take responsibility. This was a mistake. And I must take all actions to avoid such a thing in the future.”
In more bad news for Saudi Arabia, Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday that it had filed a criminal case in a German court against the crown prince for “crimes against humanity” over the murder of Khashoggi.
Saudi authorities released women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul earlier this month, but many more political prisoners remain incarcerated.
Washington wants them released, and it wants the war in Yemen, fought on one side by a Saudi coalition in support of the internationally recognized government, to end.
MBS has silenced his opposition, violently clamping down on dissent in the kingdom, eliminating all of those that may pose a threat to his ascension to the throne. With his father in frail health, and his strong grip on power, the US may have no choice but to deal with the crown prince.