New Straits Times
THE U.S. IN DELICATE BALANCING ACT
Biden’s decision not to sanction Saudi prince frustrates campaigners
UNITED States President Joe Biden’s decision not to sanction Saudi Arabia’s crown prince over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has frustrated campaigners, underscoring Washington’s delicate balancing act as it seeks to avoid a diplomatic rupture.
Washington on Friday released a long-delayed intelligence report that accused Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of approving Khashoggi’s 2018 murder in Istanbul, drawing a rebuke from Riyadh, which strongly rejected the assessment.
The public censure of the prince and a slew of US sanctions on dozens of Saudi officials marked a sharp departure from the policy of former president Donald Trump, who sought to shield the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
But Washington did not slap any direct sanction on Prince Mohammed, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken explaining that Biden wants to “recalibrate” but not “rupture” its relations with Riyadh, a long-standing Middle East partner.
“This is not the Saudi smackdown that many hoped for,” said Varsha Koduvayur, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative Washington think tank.
It indicates “Biden’s overall Saudi stance: put values at the heart of US foreign policy, emphasise human rights, and reverse the transactional approach of last four years (under Trump), while preserving the relationship”, Koduvayur added.
The Washington-based campaign group Freedom House said it was “disappointing and frustrating that the US is yet unwilling to act on its own intelligence” and impose sanctions on the Saudi prince.
The intelligence report, which had been withheld after being completed under Trump, said it was “highly unlikely” that Khashoggi’s murder could have taken place without his green light.
The killing of Khashoggi, a
Washington Post columnist and critic of Prince Mohammed, also fit a pattern of “the crown prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad”, it added.
But Saudi observers dismissed the highly anticipated report, with Ali Shihabi, a government adviser close to the kingdom’s royal court, saying the “thin” assessment lacked a “smoking gun”.
Soon after the report was made public, the Arabic hashtag “We are all MBS” began trending on Twitter, with pro-government cyber armies tweeting in support of the Saudi heir apparent.
While scrutinising human rights, Biden’s new administration was expected to work to preserve a valuable security partnership while it moved to reboot nuclear talks with Riyadh’s archenemy Teheran.
Biden also needed to deal with the top crude producer on the highly fraught issues of energy, counterterrorism, and efforts to end the conflict in Yemen.
“The Biden foreign policy team comprises seasoned experts who are not so naive as to think that they can achieve their goals in the Middle East without dealing with a Saudi state that still anchors,
though in a less totalising way, both oil and security in the Gulf,” said Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute based here.
“For this reason, they have ruled out the sanctioning of Prince Mohammed, preserving space to deal with the Saudi state and its top leadership.”
Still, Washington on Friday announced the “Khashoggi Act” that will ban entry into the US of foreigners who threatened dissidents and placed 76 Saudis on the blacklist, in what could serve as a strong deterrent.
Biden also appeared to have steered away from his predecessor ’s transactional relationship with the kingdom, an important buyer of US military hardware.
Recent official statements from Washington had called Saudi Arabia a “security partner”, instead of what the Trump administration highlighted as an “ally”.
In an apparent snub earlier this week, Biden insisted on making his first Saudi phone call to 85year-old King Salman, even as Saudi pro-government supporters insisted that his son, Prince Mohammed, was the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler.
“Washington realises that Prince Mohammed could go on to rule Saudi Arabia for the next half century, so it cannot afford to completely alienate him,” a Western diplomat said.
“But it is also making clear that it will no longer give him a free pass.”