President Joe Biden held his first call with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Thursday, but the official White House description of it made no mention of the imminent release of an American intelligence report that implicates the king’s son, and heir apparent, in the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In the days leading up to the conversation between Biden and the 85-year-old king, who has been in poor health, White House officials had described the conversation as part of a “recalibration” of the relationship, and as part of an effort to send a message that the United States regarded the son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as the wrong choice to lead the country.
As a candidate, Biden described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state and said there was “very little social redeeming value in the present government.”
But on Friday, with the release of the intelligence report, Biden will have to publicly square his critique with whatever decisions his government makes about how to deal with the crown prince once the information about his role in the Khashoggi killing becomes public.
The president will have to decide whether to bar Crown Prince Mohammed from entering the United States or to place sanctions on him for whatever role he played in the operation that killed Khashoggi, who in self-imposed exile wrote a column for The Washington Post.
The White House account of the call was written in the polite terminology of diplomatic exchanges — vague to the extreme. It said that Biden and the king “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.”
There was brief reference to Biden discussing the importance of “universal human rights and the rule of law.” But there was nothing more specific about Saudi arrests of dissidents and journalists.
Just before the call, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with the Saudi foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud. A State Department description also referred to “the importance of Saudi progress on human rights, including through legal and judicial reforms, and our joint efforts to bolster Saudi defenses.” But it, too, made no reference to the imminent declassification, or to the decision about how to deal with the crown prince.
Whatever decision Biden makes could decide the fate of the relationship with one of the United States’ key Arab allies. The president announced three weeks ago that he was banning the sale of arms that could be used to prosecute Saudi Arabia’s failed war in Yemen.
But barring the crown prince would essentially be declaring that the United States would not deal with a man who was a key player in the killing of an American resident. Khashoggi lived in Virginia, but died visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he thought he was collecting documentation for his wedding.
Crown Prince Mohammed is also the Saudi defense minister and spoke last week with United States’ new defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, suggesting that the Biden administration had determined it must deal with him at some level — as the Trump administration did. The White House said Biden was sending a signal by insisting that he would deal only with the king, in leader-to-leader conversations.
But all indications are that the crown prince will take power as soon as the king dies. Already he is considered the de facto leader of the country.
Still, the very decision to declassify parts of the intelligence report, a legal requirement, is considered by some a shot at the crown prince. The assessment, chiefly written by the CIA, concluded that he had ordered the killing of Khashoggi, who was drugged and dismembered. His remains have never been found.