OP-ED: Biden fails to make Saudi Prince MBS a pariah

Bobby Ghosh
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a news conference at the closing of the G-20 virtual summit, in the capital Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 22, 2020. (Balkis Press/Abaca Press/TNS)

The most charitable thing that can be said for President Joe Biden’s handling of the Khashoggi report is that he failed to manage expectations. Having promised to make Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman a pariah for the murder of the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden can only clutch at his pearls, declaring that “it is outrageous what happened,” while leaving the prince unpunished.

Declassified on Friday afternoon, the report, by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, makes the headline-grabbing claim that Prince Mohammed approved the 2018 operation “to capture or kill” Khashoggi. But it offers no new compelling evidence, much less a smoking gun, for the prince’s personal involvement.

Instead, the ODNI bases its assessment on the direct involvement of one of the prince’s key advisers, members of his protective detail, and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”

“Violent measures” is an understatement.

A brief recap of what we know: Khashoggi was suffocated to death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; his body was then dismembered, and the remains have never been found. Within days of the murder, Turkish authorities produced compelling evidence that a team of Saudis had flown in from Riyadh for the operation, and implicated Prince Mohammed, better known as MBS, for the murder.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, too, concluded that he ordered the killing. A United Nations “special rapporteur” assigned to investigate the case stopped short of blaming MBS, but said she had found “credible evidence, warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including the crown prince’s.”

The official Saudi position is that Khashoggi died in the course of an unauthorized extradition attempt, and that MBS had no foreknowledge of the operation. A court in Riyadh sentenced five people to death for the murder. Last fall, the court said the Khashoggi family had pardoned the men, and commuted their sentences to 20-year jail terms.

The prince himself acknowledged some responsibility, but only to the extent that the murder “happened under my watch.” He maintains that his officials acted on their own initiative.

The ODNI report pronounces the prince guilty by association, but any case based on the four-page document would summarily be tossed out of court. This suggests American intelligence agencies have unearthed nothing in two years that their Turkish counterparts had not already revealed two weeks after the murder.

The lack of fresh evidence may explain the Biden administration’s failure to impose any direct punishment on MBS, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. Instead, it has imposed a travel ban on 76 other Saudis under a new State Department policy to “to impose visa restrictions on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.”

Additionally, the Treasury Department announced measures against a former deputy Saudi intelligence chief and members of the rapid intervention force of the royal guard: Any U.S. assets they hold will be frozen and they will be barred from having dealings with Americans.

Biden officials and surrogates will claim that MBS doesn’t get off scot-free, since he has formally been named and shamed by the U.S. government. But in truth, the asterisk against the prince’s name was placed not by Biden but by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — ironically, an enthusiastic jailer of journalists.

It is true that Biden has deprived MBS of the direct access to the White House that he enjoyed under President Donald Trump. Biden has also frozen arms sales to Saudi Arabia, suspended American military assistance to the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting in Yemen and taken a firmer line with the kingdom on human rights. But all this preceded the release of the ODNI report, and cannot now be retroactively attributed to its findings. A more astute politician would have released the report before announcing those measures.

The symbolism of Biden having spoken to King Salman before the report was released carries as much weight as a schoolmaster calling a parent before chastising a mischievous pupil. There is no expectation that the king will take a paddle to his favorite son, who already controls all the most powerful levers of the state.

Far from being made a pariah, MBS remains the top dog in Riyadh — with Biden wagging a disapproving finger from the direction of Washington.

— Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.