As details emerged of the gruesome 2018 murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of the exiled dissident and journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, most observers became convinced it could not have happened without the approval of the all-powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The US intelligence report, published last week, definitively supports that conclusion.
Joe Biden is to be commended for making the CIA’s findings public after they were blocked by Donald Trump. The US sanctions imposed on Saudi government employees involved in the killing, and new measures to curb foreign agents who harass dissidents abroad, are welcome. But Biden’s too-pragmatic decision not to penalise Salman himself, the plot’s ringleader, and, in effect, let him off the hook, is dismaying.
The reasoning behind this shabby act of realpolitik is obvious enough. Saudi Arabia is an important western ally. Its cooperation is needed if Iran’s destabilising regional activities and nuclear programme are to be curbed. Hopes that Riyadh will follow the UAE and Bahrain in normalising ties with Israel are a factor, too. Saudi Arabia remains a key energy producer. And the crown prince, 35, is likely to lead the country for decades to come.
For too long, the House of Saud’s authoritarianism has been tolerated in exchange for cheap oil and arms sales
Yet Biden also says upholding human rights is a top priority. He has made ending the disastrous war in Yemen, where Saudi forces are engaged, an important policy objective. To this end, he has already suspended sales of offensive weapons. Speaking last week to King Salman, the crown prince’s father, Biden said he wanted to recalibrate the overall US-Saudi relationship on the basis of increased respect for universal values.
The contradiction is glaring. How can Biden, and Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, credibly stress the paramount importance of human rights and the international rule of law while continuing to do business with a man the US publicly accuses of conspiracy to murder? What happens when Salman next visits Washington or London? Will he be arrested? On the principle of universal jurisdiction employed by a German court to try Syrian war criminals last week, he certainly should be.
Having exposed the lethal activities of the Rapid Intervention Force, a Saudi special forces-style unit, will the US and UK demand its disbandment and the prosecution of its commanders and operatives? Several members of the hit squad that murdered Khashoggi in Istanbul belonged to the RIF. “The group exists to defend the crown prince [and] answers only to him,” the CIA report said.
Anticipating Biden’s stance, Saudi leaders took pre-emptive action. Prominent Saudi women’s rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul and the journalist Nouf Abdulaziz were recently freed from jail. Yet other leading women activists are still reportedly held. They include Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah and Mayaa al-Zahrani, along with many other political prisoners.
Symbolic, selective releases are not nearly enough. If the Saudi royals are determined to protect the crown prince rather than sack him, as he deserves, a broader relaxation of regime controls on democratic rights must be the west’s price for continued normal relations. For too long, the House of Saud’s authoritarianism has been tolerated in exchange for cheap oil and arms sales. In an age of climate crisis and pandemic disease, this cynical bargain stinks.
What should the British government do? It must not allow geostrategic concerns to trump fundamental rights and values. It should sanction the crown prince, at the very least, by adding his name to the list of 20 Saudi nationals on whom Raab imposed travel bans and asset freezes last year over their involvement in Khashoggi’s death.
Britain should halt sales of weapons and equipment that could be used in Yemen or to suppress domestic dissent. And it should unreservedly back efforts to bring Mohammed bin Salman to justice for conspiracy to murder.