The US administration has sparked outrage over welcoming Saudi prince Khalid bin Salman, the younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is linked to the murder case of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with human rights advocates saying President Joe Biden has fallen short of punishing Saudi Arabia for the prevalent human rights violations under MBS.
On Tuesday, Prince Khalid, who is also Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister, became the highest-ranking visitor from the kingdom to arrive in Washington since Biden took office, marking a vast symbolic difference with the era of former US President Donald Trump, whose first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia.
Trump and his adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, fostered a close relationship with MBS, who is known as the architect of the devastating war underway against neighboring Yemen since 2015 with the aim of installing a pro-Riyadh government in Sana’a.
Predicting the outrage, the Biden administration did not publicly announce Prince Khalid’s visit in advance.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday that Khashoggi’s murder would likely come up in the talks, but later readouts from the prince’s meetings did not clarify whether the issue was brought up by the US officials.
Psaki also said that the talks would cover Saudi “defense” needs, underlining the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend itself against what she called “Iranian-aligned groups” – making a reference to the Ansarullah movement in Yemen, which has been the target of the Saudi-led ongoing onslaught against Yemen since 2015.
The White House announced later that the Saudi prince met with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who emphasized “the importance of progress in advancing human rights in the kingdom.” It did not mention whether Khashoggi’s murder was brought up, but said the two “agreed to stay in touch regularly over the coming months.”
The prince also met with Colin Kahl, the US defense undersecretary for policy, to discuss “efforts to end the war in Yemen and the shared US-Saudi commitment to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities” and other issues, the Pentagon said.
Prince Khalid on Wednesday held a meeting with senior US State Department officials Victoria Nuland and Derek Chollet, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken only briefly attending the meeting to discuss a number of issues.
“Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined the group for part of the meeting to discuss efforts to achieve a comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire and transition to a political process in Yemen, the need for economic reform and humanitarian relief for the Lebanese people, and other key bilateral issues, including human rights,” according to the State Department.
‘Prince Khalid involved in Khashoggi murder’
The trip comes almost six months into the administration of Biden, who had vowed to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah they are” when campaigning for presidency last year.
While Biden published an assessment by US intelligence agencies that MBS personally ordered the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, he later cited national interests for not punishing Mohammed bin Salman.
“We held accountable all the people in that organization — but not the crown prince, because we have never that I’m aware of, when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person and ostracized him,” he said in an interview with ABC News on March 17.
Prior to Khashoggi’s murder, Prince Khalid had told the victim that it would be safe for him to go to the consulate, according to the Washington Post.
“Khalid himself is implicated in the plot to lure Khashoggi from the United States to Istanbul, where they proceeded to butcher him,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), told the Middle East Eye on Wednesday.
“How is it that the so-called ban is not used in the very first case when it could be?” Whitson asked.
Under MBS, Saudi forces arrested dozens of princes and prominent business figures in November 2017 and imprisoned them inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh under the pretext of an anti-corruption drive ordered by the then-newly appointed Mohammed bin Salman.
Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s former crown prince, was also arrested and charged with treason along with his half-brother Nawwaf bin Nayef and his uncle Ahmed bin Abdulaziz on March 6, 2020, as part of MBS’s efforts to consolidate power and eliminate potential rivals.
According to sources familiar with his situation, the former crown prince has suffered serious injuries to his feet from beatings and can no longer walk unaided.
Bin Salman is also accused of ordering assassination missions against a former Saudi intelligence official, Saad al-Jabri, who currently resides in Canada and revealed earlier this year that he has faced repeated threats on his life.
Last month, Riyadh was named by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) as the second-worst country in the world in terms of human rights, due to its ban on protests, limits on free expression and civil society organizations, and the inability of citizens to vote or participate in public life.