Saudi Crown Prince approved the murder of Khashoggi, US Intelligence report says

The long-anticipated report confirmed that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

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On Friday, US President Joe Biden declassified an intelligence report related to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate located in Turkey in 2018.

According to this report, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known for his initials as MBS, approved an operation to captivate or kill Khashoggi. The report stated that they reached this conclusion through the Crown Prince’s dominance over the decision-making mechanisms in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of MBS’ security team in operation, and his inclination regarding implementing violent measures to eliminate dissidents abroad. Prince Salman considered Jamal Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom, the report added. The report does not refer to any other intelligence report on the issue that remains classified.

Despite the fact that the intelligence report was concluded just a few weeks after the assassination, then-president Donald Trump has been hampering the report’s release for a long time because of his and his advisor Jared Kushner’s personal relationship with the Prince. The worth of billions of dollars of arms sales contracts were also effective in the denial of the report’s release. In fact, Trump admitted his efforts for acquitting the Prince in one of his interviews made with journalist Bob Woodward in 2019. In this, Trump said, “I saved his ass,” pointing out MBS.

Saudi officials have insistently denied the claims, which now have been approved by the intelligence report, regarding the Prince’s involvement in this horrifying murder. But then, it was seen that limited responsibility was assumed and announced that the murder happened due to a botched security operation. To appease heavy criticisms, low-level government officials were blamed and were put on trial. A clap trial found eight men guilty for the murder, and five of them were sentenced to death. In this trial, two close associates of MBS, Saud Al-Qahtani, and Al-Asiri, whose involvement in the killing was approved by the intelligence report, were cleaned. On the other hand, the death sentences were commuted when the Khashoggi family stated that they forgave the killers. Upon the report’s release, Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement rejecting the report. According to this statement, the report’s findings are negative, false, and unacceptable.

The report’s release was an issue that Biden has been frequently pledged to address during his campaign. Additionally, Biden has frequently stated that US-Saudi relations would be brought up to the institutional level again, rather than depending on the individual relationship. The fact that Biden did not rush to make a phone call with the Saudi King and Crown Prince after taking office and that the State Department’s statements regarding the US-Saudi relationship before these calls happened can be viewed as a sign of the US reconversion to the institutional level.

In the Biden era, many analysts expect that US-Saudi relations will be tense. The decision to stop supporting the Saudi offensive in Yemen and calls to prioritize human rights were early signs of this shift in the US approach towards the Kingdom. Biden’s recent move, on the other hand, came as the latest ring of this chain. Immediately after the report’s release, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a new policy named as the “Khashoggi ban”, stipulating blocking visas for people threatening opponents and journalists. Within the scope of this policy, the US administration will implement a prohibition of entry to the country for 76 Saudi citizens targeting people who criticize the regime. Additionally, the Treasury Department announced that it imposed sanctions on Ahmad Hassan Mohammed Al-Asiri, the former Deputy Head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Presidency, along with an elite Saudi force responsible for the Prince’s security, known as the Rapid Intervention Force (RIF).

However, it is seen that the Crown Prince will not face any sanction, which causes disappointment within the US Congress and the international community. This situation caused speculations claiming that the Biden administration would like to hit two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the Biden administration aims to keep its pledge to prioritize human rights by putting pressure on the Kingdom on this issue. By this, the progressive wing in the US Congress and in the US public and international community would be pleased. On the other hand, Biden would like to exploit Saudi Arabia’s bad record of human rights to bring the Kingdom to reason without causing irreparable traumas between the two countries. Given that the US is attempting to revive its traditional Middle Eastern role, keeping in mind the importance of the Kingdom’s strategic position in this role, US-Saudi relations will remain on the table. From this perspective, considering the long-anticipated intelligence report, it can be said that the roaring mountain gave birth to a mouse.

Ahmet Dogan

Ahmet Doğan is a Gulf Studies Research Assistant holding a BA degree from Hacettepe University's International Relations Department and an MA degree from the Middle East Technical University's History Department. His research focuses on the foreign policies of Gulf countries, particularly towards Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

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