Joe Biden Promised To Take On Saudi Arabia Over Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudis Won.

Biden pledged to root his foreign policy in values like human rights, but didn't apply that standard to the long and morally dubious U.S.–Saudi relationship.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Each day in October 2018 brought a chilling new revelation about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi agents chopped off his fingers, then carved his corpse into pieces. Khashoggi’s remains seemingly vanished into thin air. And the kill squad had clear ties to one of the most powerful men on the planet: Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman.

Joe Biden weighed in on Oct. 17, 2018. He said his doubts about the notoriously impetuous prince had been confirmed and that Saudi Arabia “absolutely, positively” should face repercussions.

After launching his presidential campaign, Biden called the killing a sign that it was time to reform the United States’ cozy relationship with the Saudis. “We will make clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons,” Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank. “America needs to insist on responsible Saudi actions and impose consequences for reckless ones.”

The candidate and his advisers understood the stakes of Washington’s reaction to the Khashoggi murder: The U.S. could either encourage more human rights violations or pressure governments around the world to restrain themselves for fear of losing crucial American support. Meanwhile, then-President Donald Trump argued that ethical concerns mattered less than Saudi cash — and Democrats relentlessly attacked him for it.

In the nine months since he took over from Trump, Biden could have meaningfully punished Saudi Arabia and its prince. Instead, the U.S. response to Khashoggi’s killing has been too puny to deter future abuses, according to national security officials and experts and prominent rights groups. And the kingdom is restoring its standing internationally, safeguarding itself from consequences for similar crimes in the future.

In February, the Biden administration identified the crown prince as the mastermind of the killing but said it would not target him with financial sanctions or a travel ban. Six months later, officials welcomed Khalid bin Salman, the prince’s brother and a key player in the Khashoggi assault, to Washington for a high-profile visit. Biden greenlit $500 million in U.S. military maintenance for Saudi aircraft soon afterward, then in November — exactly one month after the anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder — approved a $650 million deal for Riyadh to purchase American missiles.

Meanwhile, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund expanded its sway over the U.S. economy, and the Saudis repaired their sprawling Washington influence machine, replacing lobbyists they lost over Khashoggi and courting members of Congress — notably Republicans, some of whom have previously given vital support to rebukes of the kingdom.

As Riyadh has strengthened its position, Saudi authorities have continued to pummel dissidents — most recently by confirming a 20-year sentence for an aid worker who criticized the regime — and allegedly continue to threaten perceived foes abroad, from a United Nations rapporteur to a former Saudi intelligence chief. And Saud al-Qahtani, a high-ranking Saudi official whom U.S. intelligence accused of directing the Khashoggi operation, has regained his role in court business and pro-government propaganda.

“That’s the message he got from the killing of Khashoggi: Not that he wouldn’t kill, but that he would be smarter next time.”

- Saudi rights activist Abdullah Alaoudh, of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

To Saudi rights activist Abdullah Alaoudh, the situation seems designed to convince the crown prince — known colloquially by his initials, MBS — that he can operate with impunity.

“The same team that actually led to all this, led by MBS, is still not just existing but operating as if nothing ever happened: every day, they arrest new people,” said Alaoudh, who is now the research director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), an organization Khashoggi founded before his death.

At most, the prince might have learned to be savvier about public relations. “That’s the message he got from the killing of Khashoggi: Not that he wouldn’t kill, but that he would be smarter next time,” said Alaoudh, whose father has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 2017.

Many Biden allies and powerful advocates want the president to send a more direct message: to reprimand the prince on behalf of Khashoggi and to show that the U.S. stands with people around the world who fight for democratic ideals.

Prominent Democrats, including former State Department human rights official Rep. Tom Malinowski (N.J.), are advancing a slew of bills to reshape the U.S.-Saudi relationship, newly tying the alliance to whether the kingdom respects values like freedom of speech.

Their plans have universal Democratic support in the House and have not yet faced GOP objections. They hope to convince the Senate — where Democrats who are skeptical of Saudi Arabia are also in charge — to attach those proposals to this year’s defense authorization act, an annual bill that Washington treats as essential to pass into law.

That would force Biden to confront the Khashoggi issue again before the end of the year — and to show whether he will go further to deliver on his talk of justice.

The Biden team “did a very important thing by telling the truth about MBS’s direct involvement,” Malinowski told HuffPost. “The remaining question is whether the truth has consequences.”

Building Hope For Accountability

In the weeks following Khashoggi’s murder, reporters and law enforcement worldwide quickly unraveled the kingdom’s paper-thin cover story, and Washington moved surprisingly fast to pressure Saudi Arabia.

Top policymakers — including Saudi allies like Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — demanded transparency and threatened the kingdom with unprecedented sanctions. Well-connected lobbying firms decided to stop representing the Saudis.

That November, Trump cut off U.S. aerial refueling for the devastating Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Then senators forced Trump to share classified intelligence implicating MBS in Khashoggi’s death, which made them so angry that they voted to blame the crown prince for the killing and to end all American assistance for the Yemen campaign. (As one of his final acts in office, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan maintained the U.S. role in the war with help from five Democrats.)

It seemed like a rare moment of possibility for justice.

Democrats captured the House in the 2018 midterms and a bipartisan Senate majority repeatedly voted against America’s pro-Saudi policy in Yemen. Trump’s possible successors vowed to deliver accountability. In November 2019, Biden set a high standard for a future Democratic president: When asked about MBS’s regime, he pledged to “make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”

His passion thrilled experts who were devising ways to hold MBS and his team accountable. They knew the U.S. was unlikely to fully abandon the wealthy Middle Eastern kingdom, which is key to the global energy market, but they hoped a post-Trump administration would consider some of their suggestions.

A president could, for instance, stop supporting repressive Saudi security agencies, block some of the prince’s international investments or initiate an FBI probe into the Khashoggi operation that would be more rigorous than the Saudis’ widely criticized investigation.

“I thought [Biden] saying Saudi Arabia will be made a pariah state was just a foot-in-the-mouth moment. I never bought that,” said Philippe Nassif, the Middle East advocacy director at Amnesty International USA. “I don’t know if people were really asking for that. What we were asking for is acknowledging what our own intelligence services said, what the U.N. said. I expected Biden to hold the crown prince responsible.”

As Trump’s prospects of winning the 2020 election declined, human rights campaigners felt that their opponents were on the back foot for once.

“Whether it’s the Saudi regime or the Egyptian regime, those governments were concerned coming into this administration with the strong rhetoric that [Biden] presented centering democracy and human rights,” said Seth Binder, the advocacy director at the nonprofit Project on Middle East Democracy.

Crucially, lawmakers continued to focus on Khashoggi, considering legislation to protect other dissidents and to deter Saudi crackdowns. Pro-Saudi Republicans and complex negotiations undermined those proposals in 2019 and 2020, but critics of MBS believed that having an ally in the White House could finally turn them into law.

Today, however, the Saudis and their peers don’t face any major new limits on their repression.

“In many respects, they’ve called the Biden administration’s bluff,” Binder said.

People commemorate the third anniversary of the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 2, 2021.
People commemorate the third anniversary of the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 2, 2021.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Saudi Strategy

Saudi Arabia quickly realized that Khashoggi’s murder threatened its relationship with its most important foreign backer. But after decades of working in Washington, the regime also knew America’s levers of power — and how to collaborate with useful players in the U.S. and abroad.

MBS deployed one of his favorite tactics: presenting his rule as the answer to complaints about his country’s historic problems. In 2019, Riyadh appointed Princess Reema bint Bandar as the new Saudi ambassador to the U.S. She became the first female ambassador in the history of a country that had only lifted its ban on female drivers in 2017. MBS’s circle promoted both Bandar’s appointment and the end of the driving ban as proof of the prince’s open-mindedness rather than a result of the long struggle of activist Saudi women — many of whom the crown prince had jailed.

Bandar charmed even skeptical U.S. policymakers at receptions and official meetings, one State Department official told HuffPost shortly after her arrival. She had previously lived in the U.S. for 22 years while her father served as the Saudi representative in Washington and one of the city’s most powerful diplomats, and she could easily deploy tricks like steering tough conversation to jokes about the Dallas Cowboys.

The D.C. charm offensive drew on prominent lobbying firms who stood by the Saudis — notably Qorvis and Hogan Lovells — and the kingdom’s ties to influential lawmakers, particularly hawks who see Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against Iran and Republicans wary of challenging one of Trump’s favorite foreign partners.

Simultaneously, the Saudis were trying a more unconventional tactic using a new ally: the Iowa-based PR firm Larson Shannahan Slifka Group, also known as LS2. Since the fall of 2019, LS2 has publicized Bandar and other Saudi officials far beyond Washington. In Arizona and Maine, Sioux Falls and Philadelphia, Saudi representatives have tried to sell MBS’s narrative to college students, women in business, Jewish communities and fans of small-town radio.

In pitching events, the firm doesn’t pretend the Khashoggi killing never happened, according to a university professor who spoke with LS2 about a potential event and requested anonymity to protect relationships: “They’re saying, we know the perception and that it’s not easy.”

Despite the hokeyness of LS2′s efforts and the possibility the campaign is fleecing the Saudis in time-honored American fashion — multiple people told HuffPost the firm dropped the ball after initially contacting them — the project could ultimately make it harder to hold MBS to account.

“They’ve leaned on sports teams, tourism, Instagram influencers … it’s a soft power approach to show Saudi changing.”

- Philippe Nassif, the Middle East advocacy director at Amnesty International USA

“By enlisting trusted community members across the United States to help peddle the best possible version of the kingdom, the Saudi lobby has given its brand a homegrown, American-as-apple-pie shine,” analysts Ben Freeman, Brian Steiner and Leila Riazi of the Center for International Policy think tank wrote in April.

They noted that Saudi lobbyists in Washington highlight the embassy’s outreach to lawmakers from the states they visit, “describing audiences in such local forums as responding with ‘overwhelmingly positive feedback’ [without explaining] that the events themselves were orchestrated by the Saudi lobby.”

MBS boosted the public relations effort by offering hints of progress. His regime removed some hate speech from its school textbooks and Saudi officials said they were moving to end their horrifying intervention in Yemen.

With governments and major companies still anxious about being associated with the kingdom, the Saudis wooed easier targets. “They’ve leaned on sports teams, tourism, Instagram influencers … it’s a soft power approach to show Saudi changing,” Nassif of Amnesty International told HuffPost.

That tack disturbed some audiences — but also won Riyadh unlikely defenders. When one Instagram user commented on a post from @TaraMilkTea, a social media figure who went on a Saudi-sponsored tour, to highlight the plight of a jailed activist, the influencer retorted that tourists should keep “an open mind.”

Biden’s Betrayal

As president, Biden started off by making good on campaign promises about Saudi Arabia.

He slashed U.S. support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen and halted $768 million in weapons sales to the kingdom. His aides said the president would not speak with the prince, building hope that Biden would isolate him. The administration prepared to release a U.S. intelligence summary blaming MBS for Khashoggi’s murder — underscoring that Biden was breaking with Trump, who ignored a congressional requirement to publish that assessment. And Riyadh felt the heat: Weeks after Biden’s inauguration, the Saudis freed two jailed women’s rights activists.

Then, in February, Biden unveiled what he described as his Khashoggi policy.

It contained no sanctions for the prince and no details on what evidence American officials used to identify him as responsible. It punished only low-level Saudis without naming most of those who would be affected.

In a State Department announcement titled “Accountability for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Secretary of State Tony Blinken did not even use the word “accountability.” Instead, he said the administration was “providing transparency” and offered hope that change would come: “we have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents, and journalists must end.”

The big reveal felt like being “hit in the face with a basketball,” Nassif said.

The Washington Post, Khashoggi’s last employer, slammed Biden. The president “let the murderer walk,” wrote Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. Meanwhile, MBS’s supporters rejoiced at the prince’s success in dodging consequences or embarrassing revelations: 250,000 Twitter users ― the vast majority of them acting of their own accord ― reacted to Biden’s move by circulating the hashtag #WeAreAllMohammedBinSalman, researchers found.

Three weeks after Biden pledged to root his foreign policy in values like human rights, he showed he did not apply that standard to America’s long and morally dubious relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Saudis view his choice as a clear miscalculation. Lina Alhathloul, whose sister Loujain was released from a Saudi prison early in the Biden era, said the president’s tough rhetoric clearly “had results.”

But her sister is still banned from leaving Saudi Arabia and is facing a yearslong sentence on sketchy charges. Alhathloul believes the U.S. must demand a systematic change to make any real progress for democratic ideals within the kingdom. “As long as MBS is in power and as long as he has as much power in his hands, nothing will change,” she said.

Protesters outside the Saudi Embassy in The Hague call for the release of all jailed female human rights activists in Saudi Arabia on Nov. 19, 2020.
Protesters outside the Saudi Embassy in The Hague call for the release of all jailed female human rights activists in Saudi Arabia on Nov. 19, 2020.
Pierre Crom via Getty Images

Biden says he’s being cautious because he has to be. “We have never … when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person and ostracized him,” Biden told ABC in March.

Saudi Arabia is not a treaty ally, however — and its head of state is King Salman. Keen observers of the kingdom say Biden could and should have gone further.

“If you only hold the henchmen accountable, you are in effect reinforcing the crown prince’s cover story, which was that it was just these rogue actors working for him,” said Malinowski, the New Jersey congressman. “It also underlines what has long been a dysfunctional aspect of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. … We always take it upon ourselves to make the problems they cause go away for the sake of the relationship, when that burden really should be on them.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who represents the congressional district where Khashoggi lived, said Biden should push high-ranking Saudis to disempower MBS. “He is an unacceptable leader from our point of view because of this tragedy, and they need to look for other leadership,” Connolly said.

For now, Biden’s team has signaled that it sees the prince as a partner who is going nowhere — and whom Washington does not want to anger because he could threaten the president’s foreign policy agenda.

That approach works for Riyadh: The Saudis “have adjusted to the Biden administration,” said Gregory Gause, an international affairs professor at Texas A&M University. The U.S.’s main admonishment to the prince is that pursuing “dissidents who are frankly not all that threatening to the regime is not worth it,” he added.

But lawmakers and activists say Biden’s strategy is too weak to even convince MBS of that logic.

For instance, they argue that the president’s so-called “Khashoggi ban” barring travel to the U.S. for people who harass dissidents — including more than 70 Saudis, according to the administration — will only be effective if the people it affects are publicly named and shamed.

A State Department spokesperson said visa confidentiality laws make that impossible, but Malinowski rejected that explanation: “They just got that wrong, and I think they know it,” he said.

According to the congressional research service, a previous regulation would allow the State Department to name people who are banned from visiting the U.S. over human rights violations. The Biden administration said it would consider using that regulation to identify people covered by the Khashoggi ban, but it has not yet done so.

Biden could also release or gather more intelligence to boost the assessment blaming MBS and expose the still-murky role of his allies, like the government of Egypt, as well as complete and publish his promised review of U.S.-Saudi relations, said Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Prioritizing human rights doesn’t have to mean shattering the U.S.-Saudi relationship, said Alaoudh, the Saudi activist at Khashoggi’s organization DAWN. He pointed to the Saudi deputy defense minister’s visit in July as an opportunity that Biden’s team squandered.

“They could have said to MBS: ‘If you want to send your brother to normalize yourself and your administration here in D.C., you can do steps 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 — and if you do three steps, that’s fantastic,’” Alaoudh said. “[But] they allowed him to come … and he sold this as a huge victory for him and his supporters in Saudi Arabia.”

Speaking shortly after the third anniversary of Khashoggi’s killing, a career State Department official said the Biden team no longer seems interested in accountability for the murder. The file is “lost,” the official told HuffPost.

“As long as MBS is in power and as long as he has as much power in his hands, nothing will change.”

- Lina Alhathloul, Saudi Arabian whose sister was imprisoned

Justice Is Possible

For lawmakers and activists who challenge Saudi rights abuses, Biden now presents familiar hurdles.

“The establishment thinking around the U.S.-Saudi partnership is back in full force,” said Erica Fein, the advocacy director at the nonprofit Win Without War. Historically, American politicians have blasted Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail but handled the kingdom with kid gloves once in office.

Fein’s job is even harder now that Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress. “There are fewer champions on [Capitol] Hill and in other political spaces that are willing to really fight the Biden administration on this,” she said.

Biden’s party has been surprisingly silent so far about his November announcement of a huge arms deal for the Saudis.

Yet for Fein and others who speak of aligning America’s foreign policy with the country’s democratic values and ending Washington’s pattern of enabling atrocities, achieving justice for Khashoggi is a major test. MBS’s peers, from other world leaders to corporate figures, are closely watching to see whether that movement can change the status quo — and if the Saudis will no longer enjoy impunity.

“If you can’t [address] the most internationalized, symbolic killing of a journalist who had ties to the U.S., who was a well-known figure in the media, then we’re going to have a problem on a whole host of human rights issues across the world that are less covered by the media,” Nassif said. “I’m going to be fighting almost as much … to push Biden out of this comfort zone that our government has been in for a long time when it comes to Middle East allies, where they fund them and arm them at the expense of progress on the ground.”

Connolly, the congressman from Virginia, sees Biden repeating a mistake of his predecessors: treating national security as only a matter for the executive branch.

Launching a broader debate over foreign policy decision-making is a priority for progressives, anti-war conservatives and other advocates for reforming America’s international posture — and if Congress can ensure there are consequences for Khashoggi’s death, it would push Washington one step forward.

“Every administration forgets that Congress is … the premier branch of government that determines war and peace,” Connolly said.

MBS’s critics say Biden could be bolder in many ways: trimming military support for Saudi Arabia, intervening in the kingdom’s case against a former Saudi intelligence official who is now critical of the prince, or endorsing the proposals for reforming Saudi behavior that Democrats have inserted into this year’s defense authorization bill.

And the regime’s opponents are pushing on other fronts. In September, DAWN — the group Khashoggi founded — launched a campaign asking lawmakers to shun lobbyists for Saudis implicated in the murder.

“To lobby for oppressors is to be an oppressor,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a supporter of the effort, told HuffPost. After she and other lawmakers said they would no longer meet with a representative of the lobbying behemoth Squire Patton Boggs, the firm terminated a longstanding contract with one of the prince’s chief aides.

Biden has shown he is willing to pressure the Saudis, to ease the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, for instance, and to satisfy the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks, whose perpetrators were mostly Saudi citizens. He still has the chance to get tough for the sake of human rights.

If he doesn’t, he’ll risk further brutality and fuel cynicism among people like Mohamed Soltan, a prominent Egyptian American activist who, like many in his generation, saw Khashoggi as a mentor.

Soltan, who regularly speaks with administration officials, said Biden could once again demonstrate that America’s ideals matter little compared to political expediency — that concern for Khashoggi was simply driven by “anti-Trump stuff.”

“This is an administration that came at a time when domestically there was a real threat to our democracy,” he said. “They came in talking a big game about centering human rights in our foreign policy, and they just don’t walk the walk.”

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