On Friday, the United States publicly accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of approving the brutal assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, exposing a series of sanctions but stopping him from directly targeting the powerful heir.
The prince, who is de facto ruler of the longtime US ally and oil supplier, “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said an intelligence report recently declassified by President Joe Biden’s administration.
The report said that given Prince Mohammed’s influence, it was “very unlikely” that the 2018 murder could have taken place without his green light. The assassination also fitted a pattern of “the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.”
Khashoggi, a critic of Prince Mohammed who wrote for The Washington Post and was a resident of the United States, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 and then killed and cut to pieces.
The Ministry of Finance announced that it was freezing assets and criminalizing transactions with a former intelligence officer as well as the Rapid Intervention Force, an elite unit that the report says “exists to defend the Crown Prince” and “only responds to him.”
In honor of the dead author, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken announced the “Khashoggi Act” banning entry into the United States for foreigners threatening dissidents or harassing journalists and their families, and immediately placed 76 Saudis on the blacklist.
“We have made it very clear that extraterritorial threats and attacks by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States,” Blinken said in a statement.
Not looking for “shortage”
But the United States ended up targeting the 35-year-old Crown Prince, known by his initials MBS, with officials claiming there was no precedent for sanctions against an ally leader.
Blinken, questioned by journalists, said that “this is bigger than any person” and explained that Biden is trying “not to break the relationship, but to recalibrate to be more in line with our interests and our values.”
An advocacy group founded by Khashoggi, Democracy for the Arab World Now, called on Biden to go further by imposing sanctions on Prince Mohammed – with a number of lawmakers from Biden’s Democratic Party also pushing for more action.
“We must also make sure that there are real consequences for individuals like MBS. If not, autocrats around the world will be told that impunity is the rule,” said Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In a statement, the Saudi Foreign Ministry condemned the “negative, false and unacceptable assessment” and rejected “any action that violates its leadership.”
The Saudi government, which said in the early days that it had no information about Khashoggi, said it was taking responsibility for the assassination but considered it a frivolous operation that did not involve the prince.
Biden’s decision to release the report – first completed under Donald Trump – was a sharp departure from his predecessor, who had promised to continue working with Saudi Arabia due to the kingdom’s lavish purchases of US weapons and divided hostility towards Iran.
>> Read more: Under Joe Biden, the United States cools relations with the Saudi Crown Prince
Biden spoke by telephone late on Thursday with 85-year-old King Salman after the White House made it clear that he did not intend to talk to the Crown Prince, who, on the other hand, had formed a friendship with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Deadly consulate meeting
A veteran Saudi journalist who had gone into exile, Khashoggi was asked by the Saudi ambassador to the United States to go to the state consulate in Istanbul if he wanted documents for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman, Hatice Cengiz.
Within minutes of entering the building on October 2, 2018, the 59-year-old was strangled and his body was split by a 15-member team allegedly sent from Riyadh under the leadership of a top assistant to Prince Mohammed, Saud al-Qahtani.
The intelligence report said seven of the 15 Saudis came from the Rapid Intervention Force, which they said had previously acted to suppress disagreement in the kingdom and abroad.
The Central Intelligence Agency had quickly come to the conclusion with high confidence that Prince Mohammed ordered the assassination, but Trump refused to release the report and demanded that it proceed.
A US official said it was “obviously a reality” that the new government will still have to deal with the prince, who is also defense minister, on issues including oil, Iran and Yemen, where Biden has reduced support for Saudi’s devastating offensive.
Few observers in Saudi Arabia believe the assassination could have taken place without the knowledge of Prince Mohammed, a calculating strongman who has imprisoned a number of critics and locked competing factions in the royal family.
Under heavy pressure from the United States and the international community, the Saudi government put some of the perpetrators on trial.
The trial, behind closed doors, freed the two officials widely regarded as brainwashed: Qahtani, the royal court’s media adviser, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri – who were sanctioned on Friday by the finance ministry.
Five unnamed defendants were sentenced to death and three others received severe prison sentences. Nine months later, the death sentences were overturned by the court and replaced with sentences of up to 20 years.
Rights groups called the case a farce but it pleased the Trump administration, which blacklisted 17 suspects including Qahtani but not Assiri.