As anticipated, the US Intelligence Community concluded in its just-released report, ‘Assessing the Saudi Government’s Role in the Killing of Jamal Khashoggi’, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ‘approved an operation…to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.’ That fundamental conclusion has been the widely-accepted narrative since shortly after details of Khashoggi’s gruesome assassination first came to light in 2018.
The issue for the Biden administration has revolved less around the report’s conclusion and more around what to do about it. In the face of the Trump administration’s refusal to sanction the crown prince over the murder, there has been an intense backlash in Congress and among the public demanding that the Biden administration take a tougher line. President Biden himself, on the campaign trail, pledged that he would do so, going so far as threatening to make Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ state over its human rights record as well as Yemen.
Yet the success of the administration’s regional goals and objectives depends on maintaining cooperative relations with Riyadh. Resolving Yemen, re-engaging Iran and reducing tensions in the Gulf as well as the broader issues of counter-terrorism cooperation and Saudi Arabia’s role as an anchor of the global energy sector and economy all require that the Saudis continue to work closely with the US and embrace the US strategy. In light of these realities, President Biden has come down in a place not far from his predecessor…Saudi Arabia and the crown prince are too important to punish.
Presumably, the issue of next steps was part of the President’s February 26 conversation with King Salman. He will have wanted to send a clear signal to the King that MbS’s behavior in the Khashoggi case crossed a red line and is never to be repeated. But his action came up short of triggering a negative response from the notoriously thin-skinned crown prince. There is concern, in that regard, that the Saudi government continues to threaten a number of Saudi dissidents, including those living outside the Kingdom. Most prominent among them is Dr Saad al-Jabri, a former senior official in the Saudi Ministry of Interior and senior advisor to ousted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif who subsequently fled to Canada and has accused MbS of trying to assassinate him.
One other aspect in this case is whether or not the release of the Khashoggi report could trigger a move within the al-Saud to oust Mohammed bin Salman and name a new crown prince. It is an open question but such a move is unlikely. There is no evidence that MbS has lost the support of his father, King Salman. Moreover, he has been aggressive in removing potential rivals from their positions and ensuring that all of the instruments of state power are in the hands of trusted lieutenants. Thus, the likelihood remains that, with the passing of King Salman, Saudi leadership is almost certainly going to fall into Mohammed bin Salman’s hands. Undoubtedly, this reality, too, weighed on the administration as it mulled its next steps.
Gerald M. Feierstein is the senior-vice president of the Middle East Institute and the former principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs in the State Department. He served as US ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013.