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White House defends move not to sanction Saudi crown prince

Julian Borger in Washington
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP</span>
Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP

The White House has defended its decision not to directly sanction Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman over the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as criticism grew before Washington’s unveiling of a new policy towards Riyadh on Monday.

The White House spokesperson, Jen Psaki, stood by the move not to target the crown prince in an interview on Sunday, despite human rights groups and some senior Democrats expressing dismay that the administration had held him culpable, publishing an intelligence assessment that he had approved the killing of Khashoggi, without holding him accountable.

“We believe there [are] more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement – where there are national interests for the United States. That is what diplomacy looks like,” Psaki told CNN.

Joe Biden was vague in describing what would be announced on Monday, saying only that the general approach to Saudi Arabia it would be “significant” and make clear that “the rules are changing”.

“We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses,” Biden told Univision, saying he had warned King Salman about the announcement in a phone conversation on Friday.

The White House has said that it views the 85-year-old king as Biden’s counterpart rather than the 35-year-old crown prince, who has control of day-to-day policy.

CNN cited two unnamed administration officials as saying sanctioning the prince had not been an option as it would have jeopardised the US presence in Saudi Arabia, where it has five bases. Consequently, the State Department was not even asked to present options for sanctioning Prince Mohammed.

With the publication on Friday of an unclassified version of the US intelligence assessment on the 2018 Khashoggi murder, the Biden administration said it was imposing visa restrictions on 76 Saudis involved in the murder and in the intimidation of Saudi critics in the US, under a new measure called the Khashoggi Ban. It was not made explicit that the prince was not on the list of 76, but Psaki’s remarks on Sunday appeared to rule that out.

The Biden administration has announced an end to US military support for the Saudi-led air war in Yemen, but has said it would continue to supply the kingdom with defensive weapons. It is not yet clear how it will define offensive and defensive weapons and what arms sales will be stopped.

Biden’s measures on Saudi Arabia have so far not been enough to satisfy leading members of his party. Senator Mark Warner, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee said: “I think they need to keep open additional sanctions against MBS [the crown prince] if we don’t see a change in behaviour.”

“I applaud the Biden administration for releasing this long-overdue unclassified report,” Gregory Meeks, the chair of the House foreign affairs committee, said. “However, given the report’s conclusions about the direct role of Mohammed bin Salman, I look forward to further steps towards accountability.”

Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority issued a statement on Sunday rejecting the US intelligence assessment as “false and unacceptable” and commentators on state-backed media outlets denounced what they portrayed as a threat to Saudi sovereignty.

“We want to strengthen deep-rooted ties [with the US] but not at the expense of our sovereignty. Our judiciary and our decisions are a red line,” Fahim al-Hamid wrote in the Okaz newspaper.