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The Ghost of Khashoggi stalks the Saudis yet again. This time the spectre has been raised by President Joe Biden, who authorised the release of the US report on the 2018 killing, stressing that the order to “capture or kill” Jamal Khashoggi, a renegade but influential critic of the Saudi regime, was issued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The Saudi-American dual citizen was killed last year at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul where he went for some consular service. He was reportedly accosted and cut into pieces by the Saudi intelligence officials some of whom were given punishment by the Saudi authorities. Yet, Banquo-like, the Ghost of Washington Post Columnist Khashoggi continues to haunt the Saudi establishment that had always tried to remain close to the US Presidents but this time it is Crown Prince Mohammed’s excessive proximity and even complicity with Donald Trump and Jared Kushner which has come to bite them. President Trump had not only not authorised the release of the sui-indicting report but also continued to support the Monarchy especially MBS with whom he enjoyed a great understanding.
Riyadh was the first country Trump had visited in 2017. There were commonalities of threat perceptions and synergy of motives between the US and its allies in the region. Trump’s ideology fit quite well with Saudi and Israeli assessment of the Iranians towards whom Trump at times showed real hatred, probably under the influence of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Moreover, Saudi Arabia had to be on board if any progress was to be made on Abraham Accords even if they did not overtly normalise the diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. MBS arguably would have gone along but the ageing and traditionally minded King Salman, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” was not on the same page.
President Biden and his Administration have been talking about discontinuing the business-as-usual approach with Riyadh and Khashoggi’s case provides the mysterious yet righteous wrap for the human rights agenda of the current Administration. President Biden spoke to King Salman before the release of the report and in Texas he reiterated that he had talked with the King and not with his son the Prince setting the equivalence right. Ironically, Prince Mohammed bin Salman had a successful surgery the day the damning report was released. It is well known that MBS is the most powerful princeling in Saudi Arabia and holds the keys to the Kingdom even if not all the keys. He has indeed antagonised several of his family members by detaining and even torturing some on charges of corruption and extracting billions of dollars from them. Many of them with close ties in the US establishment will be working overtime to bring about US pressure on the King to seek alternatives. History of the Kingdom shows that court intrigue is well entrenched. More accentuated in the recent years!
As expected, the Saudis have emphatically rejected the CIA report as a “Negative, False and Unacceptable Assessment” and inferred it to be malicious and mischievous, affirming that they will not allow interference in their internal affairs. However, in a statement the Saudi Foreign Ministry called Khashoggi’s murder an “abhorrent crime and a flagrant violation of the Kingdom’s laws and values.” It argued that “The relevant authorities in the Kingdom took all possible measures within our legal system to ensure that these individuals (actual perpetrators) were properly investigated, and to ensure that justice was served. The concerned individuals were convicted and sentenced by the courts in the Kingdom, and these sentences were welcomed by the family of Jamal Khashoggi.” In the immediate aftermath, Turkey had tried to take political advantage of the Khashoggi murder in the country as the relations with Riyadh were at a low ebb. Now with the Biden riders on display both are trying to improve relations and Russia remains a pivot in the region.
While underscoring the need to address the longstanding partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia President Biden and King Salman discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups. The President noted positively the recent release of several Saudi-American activists and of Ms. Loujain al-Hathloul from custody and affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law. The President told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible. The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the ties and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest as per the State Department read out; Iran and Yemen were the major talking points.
Even as Saudi Arabia remains a major security partner of the US in the region and its biggest foreign military sales (FMS -$100 bn in active cases) market overseas, the new Administration is shooting fire on all sides. Only two days ago, the Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie claimed that the US “prizes” its relationship and bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia. Since 2019, the US has deployed several air defence systems including the THAAD and Patriot missile systems in the Gulf region. However, as it plans to revert to the Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) with Iran, Washington is trying to find a modus-vivendi by taking the concerns of other stakeholders on board, especially the Gulf countries and Israel while keeping them guessing. From Israelis Biden wants a more nuanced and less militaristic policy towards Palestinians. By suspending the sale of F-35s to UAE and missiles to Saudi Arabia approved in his last days by Trump the Administration handed out some sops to the Iranians as Biden also lifted the opposition to renewed sanctions against Tehran at the UNSC. However, no carte blanche for the Iranian Mullahs per se. In this game Washington seems to be following either somewhat confusing or ambidextrous policies.
Biden, in his calls with Putin, Xi Jinping and Netanyahu as well as with King Salman and other interlocutors, has been discussing a safe passage for the Iran deal while not seeming to surrender to the Iranian whims. He does not want to be taken for granted just because he expressed disdain for Trump’s dangerous policies. Executive orders and authorisations are an instrument of convenience for US Presidents and many other leaders in a hurry. Hence, US strikes this week on Iranian targets in Syria, in response to attacks by Iran supported militias in Iraq a week earlier, stating that Iran cannot be allowed the “Impunity” which might embolden the regime or its proxies. Russia condemned these illegal US air attacks. Beijing and Moscow are getting well entrenched in the region and have emerged as the real contesters for geo-political and geo-economic influence in the Middle East as they do not bother in the same way about the human rights violations or the kinds of regimes these countries have. They would tend to gain some mileage out of the Biden Administration’s “Fix it All” policy with extraneous considerations. How different or peaceful the Middle East would be during the Biden Presidency is too early to tell but some anxiety among erstwhile Trump-friendly partners is visible!