Washington’s Capitulation to Riyadh

On Nov. 17, Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of the late Jamal Khashoggi, tweeted that “Jamal died again today.” What actually happened that day is that the Biden administration held Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman legally immune in the murder investigation of The Washington Post journalist. Although the crown prince’s father formally sits on the Wahhabi throne, it is widely known that Crown Prince Mohammed holds the true power in Saudi Arabia. In fact, his is an exceptional case in the history of the Saudi Arabian monarchy.

Early this fall, the crown prince granted himself the title of prime minister, which has historically only been granted to the king himself in order to solidify his own power in succession, as well as to provide legal immunity under international law and in foreign legal cases.

The U.S. administration has since confirmed and supported this state of affairs. The Biden administration did reiterate that its position on the case has not changed, and that it explicitly condemns the murder. However, the lawsuit brought by Khashoggi’s fiancee and the human rights organization Democracy for the Arab World Now, which accuses the crown prince of being involved in Khashoggi’s murder, has been rejected by a U.S. federal judge on the grounds that the crown prince is immune from prosecution.

Nothing forced the Biden administration to confirm the claim of immunity, since the U.S. has a purely advisory role in the case. The announcement was not binding on federal Judge John Bates who had sought information from the administration on all aspects of the case, including immunity. Bates had the authority to grant or deny Crown Prince Mohammed’s claim of immunity. In other words, silence was a choice that Joe Biden chose not to make.

Consequently, people have rightly denounced the Biden administration’s announcement as an unacceptable position in the wrongful death lawsuit over a killing that the American president has always strongly condemned. Biden’s decision casts doubt over the validity of statements he made as a presidential candidate, and his statements as head of state, and will negatively affect the international credibility of the United States. We are witnessing a remarkable contradiction with respect to the statements that Biden made on the campaign trail, when he promised that he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” It is also inconsistent with one of Biden’s first decisions as president in February 2021, when he authorized the release of classified information showing the role that the crown prince played in the Khashoggi killing. It was an unprecedented move at the time by the U.S. government against a strategic partner.

But this all happened before the war in Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis. In July, Biden reneged on his own commitments and traveled to Saudi Arabia hoping to prompt an increase in oil production, a result he was unable to achieve. Saudi Arabia, not particularly interested in deescalation with Washington, instead supported Russia by closing the flow of black gold.

The White House’s inconsistency and misguided policy decision set off a wave of criticism from human rights defenders and even from members of Biden’s own camp. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reiterated that American intelligence identified the crown prince’s responsibility in Khashoggi’s killing and said that the crown prince regretted the decision, which is a blank check for an authoritarian government with no respect for human rights. At the same time, Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby told the press that there was no relation between the White House’s decision and the tension between Riyadh and Washington, a statement that is hard to believe. The announcement is certainly part of the long tradition of separating domestic law from international law that recognizes legal immunity for foreign heads of state and officials, a convention that also holds true in the United States. But more important is the question of timing: Why now, right as an exceptional and calculated decision legitimizes the crown prince as prime minister?

For members of Congress and human rights organizations, this is a clear capitulation by the U.S. in the face of pressure by Crown Prince Mohammed, who is using the international crisis to further his own agenda. Following the Wahhabi kingdom’s announcement of a cut in oil production a few weeks ago, Biden promised to retaliate and reevaluate the Saudi partnership. At the moment, his strategy appears at once vague and completely blatant at the same time: keep Saudi Arabia satisfied — a country that can no longer be considered reliable — and rush to revive relations that have become more problematic than strategic.

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