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What the release of Khashoggi intelligence report says about Saudi Arabia’s ‘bungling sadist’ – and Washington

Borzou Daragahi
·6-min read
<p>Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pictured in 2018, personally ordered Jamal Kashoggi’s capture or murder according to US intelligence</p> (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pictured in 2018, personally ordered Jamal Kashoggi’s capture or murder according to US intelligence

(Reuters)

From the observation that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman controls substantive decision-making in Saudi Arabia, to the fact that most of the kill squad were members of his security entourage, there’s little in the United States assessment of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder that was not already known to observers.

But the release of the report, along with growing vocal opposition to the Yemen war and President Joe Biden’s insistence on speaking with King Salman instead of the young MBS, signals a new era in US-Saudi relations — one that could change strategic calculations in the Middle East.

“There is very much a contingent in Washington that not only wants to sanction MBS because they think he’s a danger, but to deter other tyrants from thinking they can get away with murder,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, an organisation founded by Khashoggi before his death.

“There is also a contingent of people who want to re-evaluate the US relationship with Saudi Arabia with a big question mark of what we get out of it,” she said. “Then there are others who are tied to business as usual with narrow blinkers who think that it might be unrealistic to punish MBS.”

Much of the substance in the Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence’s four-page report, released on Friday, has already been leaked to Washington journalists, or surmised by lawmakers and others briefed on its contents. It contained no new facts, or references to intercepted conversations or intelligence reports, though some officials hinted that a longer declassified document would be issued later.

“The Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported violent measures if necessary to silence him,” says the report, without disclosing how exactly it knew of Prince Mohammed’s intentions. “Although Saudi officials had pre-planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi we do not know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him.”

In candid moments, even loyalist interlocutors with the prince have described Khashoggi’s gruesome 2018 murder in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate as an abduction gone awry. The plan wasn’t to kill the outspoken Washington Post journalist, they have said, but to bundle him up against his will in a private jet and bring him back to Saudi where he could be interrogated and subject to torture – as if that were any better.

“There is nothing here that has not been said before and absolutely no smoking gun,” Ali Shihabi, a Saudi businessman and frequent defender of the crown prince, said in a tweet.

But experts say it’s the act of releasing the report that signals a change. While former president Donald Trump feted the Saudi regime as if it were the closest of allies and even his predecessor Barack Obama indulged the kingdom by supporting its disastrous offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Biden administration may herald a profound downgrading of Saudi importance.

Even the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the co-conspirators listed as members of the kill team which targeted Khashoggi. The report now paves the way for sanctions on Prince Mohammed, and potentially freezing his assets abroad.

The Biden administration has already suspended what it has described as sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, though sales of defensive weapons continue.

The US position is complicated by the influence of Israel and the United Arab Emirates – who see Riyadh as a key ally against Iran – and the arms industry, which sells billions in weapons to the oil-rich kingdom.

A similar dynamic operates in the United Kingdom, according to Amrit Singh of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

British foreign secretary Dominic Raab “is out there saying human rights are at the centre of UK policy,” she said during an online briefing. “Meanwhile, the UK has resumed arms sales to Saudi and has sold it $1.4bn in weapons.

“The UK government seems to be speaking from both sides of its mouth. There’s this rhetorical commitment to holding human rights violations accountable. But on the other hand, there are these arms sales.”

The possibility of an ever more drastic shift in the US relationship to Saudi Arabia is rooted in geopolitical shifts. America’s dependence on the oil pumped out from Arabian Peninsula wells has diminished dramatically. And the Biden administration has strongly signalled that it aims to prioritise restoring strong relations with longtime European allies that were frayed during the Trump years, as well as pivoting toward Asia in an effort to confront China and strengthen its partnerships with Pacific nations. Eight of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s first 25 calls abroad after his confirmation were to Asia-Pacific nations, and none were to Saudi Arabia.

By bluntly pinning the murder of Khashoggi on Prince Mohammed, the report also adds pressure on Saudi Arabia as it transitions from the rule of King Salman to his son, a move that has been opposed by other factions in the Saudi monarchy who worry the aggressive 35-year-old is unstable and dangerous.

“Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organisations,” the report states in unqualified terms.

Before the Khashoggi killing, MBS toured the US where he was feted by captains of industry and entertainment as the young face of a new Saudi Arabia. The report will only reinforce his toxicity, and embolden his critics.

“He was the darling of Silicon Valley; he was rubbing shoulders with Oprah Winfrey, and what did he go and do? Butcher Jamal Khashoggi,” said Ms Whiston. “Every bit of lost revenue, every bad drop of ink is a direct result of his bungling sadism. He’s a liability.”

Insiders describe a struggle in Washington between those punishing Prince Mohammed and those who argue in favour of the status quo, a push and pull that is reflected in conflicting public statements that have been issued since the 20 January inauguration. But Congress is clearly fed up with Prince Mohammed, and a consensus that includes both Democrats and Republicans appears poised to act.

Ms Whitson noted that Prince Mohammed’s provocative moves against dissidents abroad continued even after the public uproar following the Khashoggi killing.

“The real message is that the Saudi people and King Salman have a very short window to spare their country and people further humiliation and scandal and pariah status,” said Ms Whitson. “If MBS becomes king, Saudi Arabia’s pariah status becomes permanent. The problem is that he is a sadist, an insane bully who can’t control himself.”

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