Human rights activists seeking accountability for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi accomplished a long-held goal this past Friday when President Joe Biden finally released U.S. intelligence confirming that the Saudi crown prince was behind the killing. But activists say a lot more needs to be done to achieve true justice for Khashoggi.
Though Biden unveiled sanctions on Saudis and others who hound reporters, dissidents and human rights activists internationally, the president notably did not announce any policy specifically targeting Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS. That omission prompted criticism from activists and the media. The New York Times called it a sign that “Biden choked,” while The New Yorker depicted it as a green light for brutal dictators worldwide and Bloomberg described it as a failure.
But last week’s actions do not represent the sum total of Biden’s approach to MBS. And the coalition of groups and powerful individuals who want a tougher U.S. response to the Khashoggi killing is ramping up efforts to push Biden to go further. They say they’re hopeful the president and his team can be convinced to roll out additional punishment.
“I haven’t lost faith. I still think Biden can do the right thing,” said Abdullah Alaoudh of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the nonprofit that Khashoggi founded before his death.
This week, 42 advocacy organizations, led by DAWN and Win Without War, signed on to a statement that demands further steps to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.
The message, exclusively shared with HuffPost prior to its public release on Tuesday, calls Biden’s action on Friday “a much-welcomed act of transparency” that should be followed by sanctions on MBS and the huge Saudi sovereign wealth fund that he controls ― which owns parts of prominent American companies like Uber ― as well as by a full ban on arms sales to the kingdom, new U.S. demands for the prince to release political prisoners and an FBI investigation into Khashoggi’s murder.
Biden’s move “will ring hollow unless accountability follows,” the statement reads.
Congress is considering multiple pieces of legislation to nudge or legally require Biden to be more assertive. A proposal from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) would freeze MBS’s assets and bar him from U.S. travel, while a bill from Democratic Reps. Tom Malinowski (N.J.), Andy Kim (N.J.) and Jim McGovern (Mass.) ― who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee ― would ban visas for anyone named in the declassified intelligence report and require probes of Saudi government abuses. A Senate bill mandating sanctions on Saudis is expected this week too.
Proponents for a stronger response to Saudi misbehavior are hopeful that they can influence Biden’s thinking. They know that failing to even try ― and settling for a limited response widely seen as amounting to impunity for the prince ― would vindicate those who say America will never truly prioritize human rights and effectively encourages further abuses by leaders like MBS.
The New York Times and The Washington Post have reported that there is a complex internal debate among Biden’s team over how far to go on sanctions, with officials concluding for now that directly targeting the prince would make the Saudis less likely to back up U.S. foreign policy and continue recent concessions on human rights like releasing some political prisoners.
Some experts who want a change of course from the Saudis agree that emphasizing the prince’s responsibility in the Khashoggi killing could be unhelpful as Washington tries to pressure Saudi Arabia over other human rights abuses. “MBS is a bully who takes personal slights seriously. ... You just have to be more strategic when engaging with a single individual who’s capricious and powerful and dangerous,” said Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft think tank.
For example, Sheline wants the Biden administration to take a tougher tack on Saudi actions in Yemen by forcing the Saudis to end a blockade driving starvation in that country.
And there’s concern that making the matter personal could further boost allegiance within Saudia Arabia to the prince, who has courted younger Saudis and presented himself as their representative.
“The U.S.-Saudi relationship needs to fundamentally change. I’m just not sure sanctioning MBS right now is going to facilitate that or lead to anything productive,” Sheline said.
The counter-argument from Alaoudh and others is that allowing MBS to remain as powerful as he is now makes progress impossible.
“Releasing political prisoners, stopping the war in Yemen are priorities but I think look at who created all this. ... For me, treating the underlying disease is much more important,” said Alaoudh, the son of a jailed pro-democracy Saudi cleric named Salman Al-Awdah.
Alaoudh said Biden’s attempts to encourage reform through MBS have so far had limited results: The prince’s release of women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, for instance, did not include lifting the travel ban and surveillance targeting her, and the Saudis continue to bomb Yemen.
But Alaoudh believes the president’s team can be convinced that a limited reprimand is unwise and a harsher strategy would be worthwhile.
“I still think Biden can do the right thing.”
“The price of letting him go free with this is heavier than sanctioning him,” Alaoudh said, listing widely condemned actions that MBS took prior to the Khashoggi killing like launching the vicious military intervention in Yemen, blockading Qatar, kidnapping Lebanon’s prime minister and rounding up scores of influential Saudis.
Addressing the frequently repeated Biden administration talking point that the president does not want “a rupture” in the historic U.S.-Saudi relationship, Alaoudh said he and his fellow activists don’t want to cut off the kingdom either.
However, he added, “MBS is not Saudi Arabia ― Saudi Arabia in the first place is the Saudi people. It is Khashoggi and Khashoggi’s loved ones and family and friends. Saudi Arabia is the families, the people, the economists, the bright minds that are locked up in jail, exiled or intimidated into silence because of MBS.”
Hala Al-Dosari, a Saudi activist now based in the U.S. who held a Washington Post fellowship named for Khashoggi, said many in the Saudi governing elite would be grateful if international pressure helped constrain MBS’s power.
“The more he is addressed in terms of the serious violations that have been committed, the more the lessons that should be learned by other people within Saudi Arabia at the senior level,” she added, saying this could also discourage autocratic behavior by rulers in neighboring nations.
Al-Dosari said she is also optimistic that Biden will address Saudi repression, noting that he has to contend with a history of U.S. disregard for human rights in the kingdom that “intensified under the Trump administration.”
“It will take time to reform some of the damage of policies under previous administrations but they started well by granting transparency,” she continued.
As critics of Saudi behavior suggest paths forward for Biden, they do differ on some fundamental ideas.
One common line from more traditional analysts is that if the U.S. treats MBS as persona non grata, it could push his father, King Salman, to replace the crown prince with a more experienced royal who fits the historic mold of Saudi rulers close to the West.
Al-Dosari called that idea largely “wishful thinking” and said activists should focus on changing MBS’s behavior.
And Sheline said the argument has a number of problems. “The U.S. should not be in the business of regime change. It just never goes well,” she said, adding that “it’s not like Saudi Arabia was this bastion of justice and liberty before.”
With U.S. lawmakers clearly still keen to challenge the Saudis and Biden taking some major steps in that direction in just the first month of his presidency, human rights campaigners see their task as helping the new administration craft a policy reflecting the values that Biden says he wants to uphold.
Philippe Nassif of Amnesty International said the new administration’s early policy shifts on Yemen ― pulling U.S. support for the campaign and freezing weapons shipments ― showed it is serious about global justice.
But he added that the treatment of Al-Hathloul underscores a critical point for Biden as his approach evolves. “Don’t let the Saudis set the bar for human rights,” taking credit for starting to address wrongs that should never have been committed in the first place or narrowly defining how much they will change course, Nassif said.
He conceded that Biden’s initial Khashoggi actions made him “a little more pessimistic” about the prospects for serious reform.
“There’s more time, but I think it’s going to be a bigger fight than a lot of people in the advocacy community thought,” Nassif said.