The United States Biden administration is facing criticism from rights groups and anti-war advocates for its welcome of Saudi Arabia Prince Khalid bin Salman to Washington, DC, for high-level meetings this week.
Prince Khalid bin Salman is the brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. Over July 6-7, the prince met with US President Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley and other senior US officials.
MBS was formally identified earlier this year by US intelligence agencies as having sanctioned the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018. As a presidential candidate in 2020, Joe Biden had denounced Khashoggi’s assassination and pledged Saudi Arabia would be a “pariah”.
“It’s tremendous hypocrisy on the part of the Biden Administration to act like it was going to transform the relationship with the Saudis,” said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, a women’s peace advocacy group in Washington, DC.
“The Biden administration is going against everything that it said it was going to do,” Benjamin told Al Jazeera on Thursday.
She added that it said it would have a different relationship with Saudi Arabia. “Biden talked about MBS being a pariah, and how he was going to make sure that the US was not supporting facilities in their war in Yemen.
“Yet in reality, he puts out the red carpet for MBS’s brother. He continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. And he is keeping information from the public about the killing of Khashoggi,” Benjamin said.
President Biden and his team have walked a narrow line between condemning Khashoggi’s murder and maintaining a working relationship with Crown Prince bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. The US wants Saudi cooperation on a range of challenges from Iran’s nuclear programme to the civil war in Yemen and the crisis unfolding in Lebanon.
US spy agencies, in a declassified report prepared by the CIA and released on February 26, had assigned responsibility for the operation that killed Khashoggi to MBS.
With release of the report, the State Department put more than 70 Saudi nationals on a no-travel list and the Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on officials who were directly involved in the killing of Khashoggi. But neither MBS or his brother Prince Khalid were included in those sanctions.
Khalid bin Salman was the Saudi ambassador to the US at the time of Khashoggi’s murder. At the time he condemned “malicious leaks and grim rumors” surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance on October 2, 2018, saying any claims that he was missing in the Istanbul consulate “or that the Kingdom’s authorities have detained him or killed him are absolutely false and baseless”.
The Saudi government later admitted a team of Saudi agents had killed Khashoggi in the consulate.
“President Biden has talked a good game about holding Khashoggi’s murderers accountable, even promising during his campaign to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), said in an op-ed published in The Washington Post on July 6.
DAWN was founded by Khashoggi who was writing opinion columns for The Washington Post that were critical of Saudi Arabia’s monarchy at the time he was killed.
“But not only has his administration refused to sanction MBS — the chief architect of the murder — and continued arms sales under the moniker of ‘defensive weapons’, it now seems like it’s keeping a lid on critical information about Khashoggi’s killing,” Whitson wrote.
Several members of the MBS-backed “Tiger Squad” hit team that killed Khashoggi had received paramilitary training in the US, and Egypt allegedly provided a lethal substance used to kill Khashoggi, Whitson said, citing reports.
By hosting Prince Khalid, who is a “proxy” for MBS, the Biden administration is seeking to gain Saudi acquiescence to a renewed Iran nuclear weapons ban, and continue profitable arms sales to the oil-rich kingdom, Whitson told Al Jazeera.
“On the one hand they want to appear to be taking a tough stance on the Saudis … and the other hand they are hosting this guy who should have been number one to implement the Khashoggi ban,” Whitson said.
DAWN and Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz sued MBS and other Saudi officials in a US court in 2020 seeking damages and a jury trial. Prince Khalid has denied any role in Khashoggi’s murder.
The CIA reviewed a 2018 phone call in which Prince Khalid told Khashoggi to go to Istanbul to collect marriage papers and assured him it would safe to do so, according to Washington Post reporting.
Prince Khalid posted pictures on his Twitter feed of his meetings with top US officials.
— Khalid bin Salman خالد بن سلمان (@kbsalsaud) July 7, 2021
“We discussed the longstanding and historic partnership between our two countries, our military and defense cooperation, and our mutual efforts to preserve regional stability,” Prince Khalid said on Twitter.
Khalid said he had a “great meeting” with Secretary Blinken “to discuss the strategic Saudi-US partnership, review the latest developments in the region, and explore ways to strengthen Saudi-US ties”.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said bin Salman’s conversation with Blinken had focused on regional security issues, including “efforts to achieve a comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire and transition to a political process in Yemen, the need for economic reform and humanitarian relief for the Lebanese people, and other key bilateral issues, including human rights”.
Leaked documents from Riyadh that were reported in May by the Gulf Institute indicate the Biden administration has thus far rebuffed a request by Saudi King Salman to allow MBS to visit Washington.
During the visit, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi vice minister of defence, met with US Special Envoy Tim Lenderking to discuss the war in Yemen. The US is looking for Saudi cooperation in opening a Yemeni seaport and airport to allow access for more humanitarian supplies.
Lenderking “stressed the need for continued Saudi engagement on Yemen, allowing space for nationwide comprehensive ceasefire, followed by a transition to a Yemeni political process that would lead to a permanent solution to this conflict”, Price said.