Defending President Joe Biden’s decision not to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the brutal 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Sunday that the administration sees “more effective ways” to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder.
On Friday, the Biden administration released a report finding that Crown Prince Mohammed had Khashoggi, a well-known dissident, executed and dismembered. The report’s findings, unlawfully withheld by former President Donald Trump’s administration for years, were announced along with a travel ban on several Saudi officials who are known for targeting critics. The crown prince was not among them.
When asked why, Psaki told CNN’s Dana Bash that the Biden administration believes there are “more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again” and wanted “to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement ― where there is national interest for the United States.”
The press secretary said the U.S. is “recalibrating” its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the choice not to sanction Mohammed bin Salman is because administrations customarily don’t sanction leaders of foreign governments with whom the U.S. has diplomatic relations. She claimed Biden’s choice to end support for Saudi attacks on Yemen, along with other humanitarian efforts in the region, prove the president is responding to the regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent.
“That is what diplomacy looks like,” Psaki said Sunday. “That is what complicated global engagement looks like.”
The strategic relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, a key ally in the Middle East, spans decades. In recent years, the U.S. has supported the Saudi government even as world leaders condemned them for human rights abuses, including the war in Yemen. U.S. complicity in Saudi-led humanitarian crises has been criticized throughout several presidential administrations, but public condemnation of U.S.-Saudi coziness grew louder under Trump, who instituted policies that appeased Saudi government officials who spent heavily at his hotels and enriched his family.
Friday’s news ― both the report on Khashoggi’s execution and the revelation that Crown Prince Mohammed won’t face sanctions for ordering it ― showed that Biden and his foreign policy team are trying to strike a difficult balance with regard to diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. They want to show a change in policy from the Trump administration, but are still willing to show some deference in order to avoid upsetting the relationship.