Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 337, 4 March 2021

Saudi Arabia: Crown Prince MBS named in the US intelligence report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi
Harini Madhusudan

In the news
On 26 February, an intelligence report by the office of the US Director of National Intelligence revealed that the Crown Prince of Saudi, Mohammed bin Salman played a role in directing the Saudi hit squad to either "capture or kill" Khashoggi. The report says, "We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi." The direct involvement of one of his advisers as well as members of his protective detail in the operation is some of the reasons for the conclusion. The four-page report names 21 individuals who participated in the killing.

On, 2 March, the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have filed a criminal complaint with a German prosecutor alleging that Saudi Arabian officials are responsible for “widespread and systematic” persecution of journalists in the kingdom, citing what it characterizes as the arbitrary detention of more than 30. 

Issues at large
First, the return of the Khashoggi case. The Khashoggi killing had been dying-out from popular memory. The renewed interest in the case came with the Biden election campaign and the subsequent release of the report. The RSF case filed in Germany also draws attention to the case of Jamal Khashoggi again.

Second, the change in US strategy to the Middle East under Biden. Throughout his election campaign, Biden vowed to take a harder stance with a pretext of having Saudi Arabia act responsibly or pay a price. Taking from it, the release of the report comes in the early months of Biden taking office. In an attempt to indicate that nothing would change in the relations, Biden made a call to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud the day before the release. There are also changes in the US strategy towards Yemen and statements hinting the same on Iran.

Third, international investigations, reports and the pressure on MBS. An investigation by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, concluded that “Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.” The current US intelligence report prepared in 2019, takes a similar path and correlates the actions of the people accused to link the role of MBS in the decision to kill Khashoggi. It appears the international pressure on MBS is back with developments in the US and Germany.

In perspective
First, though the US officials have portrayed it as an attempt to re-calibrate the relations and not rupture them, actions taken by Biden have drawn a lot of attention. However, there has been no MBS specific sanctions in the US yet. 

Second, the recent measures would have an impact on US-Saudi Arabia relations. Especially with MBS. Hours after the release of the report, the Saudi foreign ministry has called it unacceptable, and false. Though the decision to release the report can be seen in good light, it seems like President Biden got the timing wrong and angered many parties including the human rights defenders.

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