US PRESIDENT Joe Biden told Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler that the latter’s country has to tackle human rights abuses as a precondition before dealing with the United States.
This was following a US intelligence that was released on Friday stating that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill now-murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi back in 2018.
Khashoggi was a 59-year-old Saudi journalist who lived in self-imposed exile in Virginia wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post revolving around the crown prince. He was found killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudi government denied any involvement by the crown prince and issued a statement rejecting the US report’s findings and repeated its previous statements of Khashoggi’s murder being part of a heinous crime by a rogue group.
Biden made it clear that killings of political opponents were not acceptable to the US, while also attempted to preserve ties to the 35-year-old crown prince, who is expected to rule one of the world’s top oil exporters for decades and emerge as an important ally against a common foe: Iran.
“(I) made it clear to him that the rules are changing and we’re going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday,” Biden said on Spanish language network Univision television interview.
The US announced a decision to bar entry by 76 Saudis under a new policy called the “Khashoggi Ban”.
Among some of the steps that had been taken includes a visa ban imposed on a number of Saudis that are believed to be involved in the Khashoggi killing and sanctions were placed on others including a former deputy intelligence chief, that would freeze their US assets and generally bar Americans from dealing with them.
US officials also said they were considering cancelling arms sales to Saudi Arabia that pose human rights concerns and limiting future sales to “defensive” weapons, as it reassesses its relationship with the kingdom and its role in the Yemen war.
The four-page report by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence based its assessment on the crown prince’s control of decision-making, the direct involvement of one of his key advisers and his own protective detail, and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.
“Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without (his) authorisation,” the report said.
In declassifying the report, Biden reversed his predecessor Donald Trump’s refusal to release it in defiance of a 2019 law, reflecting a new US willingness to challenge the kingdom on issues from human rights to Yemen.
“This report has been sitting there, the last administration wouldn’t even release it. We immediately, when I got in, filed the report, read it, got it, and released it today. And it is outrageous what happened,” Biden said on Univision.
However, Biden is treading a fine line to preserve ties with the kingdom as he seeks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with its regional rival Iran and to address other challenges including fighting Islamist extremism and advancing Arab-Israeli ties.