President Joe Biden spoke with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Thursday for the first time, just before the White House is expected to release a U.S. intelligence report on the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The White House said the pair addressed “the longstanding partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” including regional security and “the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen.”
But an official account of the talk did not directly mention Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, aside from affirming “the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.” The document, which could be released Friday, includes information compiled mainly by the CIA and reportedly concludes the crown prince directly ordered Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi-born journalist was in self-imposed exile in America and had been critical of the Saudi government in his columns.
It’s unclear if Khashoggi was discussed between Biden and King Salman, as the official reports on such talks usually include diplomatic vagaries.
“The President told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible,” the White House said. “The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest.”
Biden has moved forward on plans to realign ties between Washington and Riyadh, including canceling arms sales approved by former President Donald Trump that the Saudis could have used in their war in Yemen. The White House has said the president will only speak with King Salman but not his expected successor and the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The crown prince has denied involvement in Khashoggi’s death, but Riyadh admitted to the killing and blamed it on “rogue” agents. Eleven Saudis were put on trial and eight were convicted, with five given the death penalty. Those five, though, saw their sentences commuted to 20 years after Khashoggi’s family forgave them.
Khashoggi’s remains have never been found.
The Biden administration has not been able to completely remove the crown prince from diplomatic relations. The New York Times notes he is also the Saudi defense minister and spoke with America’s new defense secretary last week.
The publication added that once the report on Khashoggi is made public, Biden will likely face pressure to take action over the crown prince’s supposed role in the killing, which could include barring him from entering the United States or imposing sanctions.