Jamal Khashoggi: The Continued Conflict in Saudi – American Relations

On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a known Saudi Arabian dissenter, was found dead in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. This was an extreme point of conflict between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States in 2018 because Khashoggi was a US citizen. There was an immediate call for a US response; however, one was never received under the Trump presidency. At first, the Saudis claimed that the killing was not the intention, but the US was not convinced (Ward). In 2019, under Trump, US Congress passed a bill requiring the Trump administration and the Director of National Intelligence to release the report; they refused (Borger). After the refusal, very little, if anything, was heard about Jamal Khashoggi again. 

Now significant time has passed and the international community has finally received the report on Khashoggi under the new Biden administration. On February 26th, the Biden administration released a long-awaited declassified intelligence report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The report reads, “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi” (DNI). The report goes on to explain the basis of this assessment by stating that the Crown Prince has control over all decision-making, showing that he is directly involved in the killing of Khashoggi (DNI). The report also stated that at the time of the Khashoggi murder the Crown Prince was the sole decision-maker. He was known to silence or not accept any other dissenting opinions. Therefore, anyone under his administration -who may have not agreed with the decision to kill Khashoggi- would have either not spoken up or been dismissed by the Crown Prince. The report ends with a list of fifteen individuals who participated or were otherwise directly complicit in the death of Khashoggi (DNI)

With the report finally released, the Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, announced a new “Khashoggi Ban” that according to CNN, “allows the US to restrict visas for individuals acting on behalf of a foreign government or directly engaged in serious counter dissenter activities”. He went on to explain that this ban would immediately be applied to “76 Saudi individuals”  who were known to be involved in many anti-dissenter programs including the Khashoggi killing (Gaouette). The Treasury Department followed the Khashoggi Ban with a number of sanctions against Saudi officials; however, this did not include the Crown Prince (Gaouette). According to the White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, this is to uphold the status quo of relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States. She later explains, in recent history, there has not been any sanctions placed on leaders that the US has diplomatic or any sort of relationships with. Therefore if sanctions were to be placed on the Crown Prince, relations would be harmed much more than the face value of the sanctions. The sanctions would represent a personal or extreme dislike towards the Crown Prince, being that he would be the first leader to have sanctions placed upon him by the US. 

According to CNN, The lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said in a statement he “strongly” supports the Khashoggi ban announcement and called on Saudi Arabia to “permanently end intimidation, harassment and violence against journalists and dissidents in order to restore the trust of the United States and the world” (Gaouette). Mitch McCaul is generally aligned with the Republican party and right-winged voters, making his opinion a generally accepted one. There is no movement in the Republican party to call for sanctions against the Crown Prince and very little on the Democratic side. In fact, “Democratic lawmakers who pushed for years for President Donald Trump to take a tougher stand on the Khashoggi case offered praise for the report’s release” (Gaouette). For the first time, in a long time, there seems to be a major acceptance of the White House’s decision to not sanction the Crown Prince; however, this does not mean there is a unanimous acceptance of the decision. 

One staunch critic of the White House’s decision, Nicholas Kristof, wrote a piece called “President Biden Lets a Saudi Murderer Walk” where he considers the implications of the decision. He considers the argument of upholding the status quo but argues that the Crown Prince, “will become king upon the death of his aging father and rule recklessly for many years, creating chaos in the Gulf and a rupture in Saudi-American relations that would last decades” (Kristof). Kristof argues that by upholding the status quo now, we risk losing it in the future. He notes the Crown Prince’s history of recklessness and states that if he is crowned King, it will only worsen. He recommends that the US sanctions the Crown Prince, thus forcing his father to elect someone else as king and avoid possible future conflict. Kristof also directly criticizes President Biden, stating, “The weak message to other thuggish dictators considering such a murder is: Please don’t do it, but we’ll still work with you if we have to” (Kristof). In this perspective, the US is viewed as weak and compromising on its democratic views – a perspective that directly harms US democracy.

The Biden administration has two options: to sanction the Crown Prince or not. Both of these arguments have severe consequences and implications concerning the future of Saudi- American relations. On one hand, the US could sanction its first foreign leader for the death of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi and risk relations with Saudi Arabia while hoping that Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salam will not one day become King. And on the other, the US can continue doing what it has, sanctioning and punishing everyone but the Crown Prince, and maintain the relationship between the two nations in hopes this does not happen again.

 In international politics, maintaining the status quo is how one maintains power. The United States is a world leader and wishes to remain as such. The Trump Administration clearly avoided the conflict altogether, as its complications could be everlasting. However, Biden reopened this conflict and chose the route favoring the status quo over setting an example of the Crown Prince. With the current sanctions and possible loss of arms, Saudi Arabia is aware of the depth behind the relationship with the US. The Biden administration, and myself, hope this is enough to check the Crown Prince in his future decisions concerning US citizens. Jamal Khashoggi is hopefully the last reporter the US will lose to a foreign nation; but in the event he is not, the current sanctions do not indicate an extreme loss for any other foreign leader.