It is easy to frame the release of the intelligence report on the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as an attempt by President Joe Biden to “reset” the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Biden has disdained the Trump administration’s closeness with the Saudi kingdom, characterized by unquestioned support and limitless weapons sales, sometimes coordinated via WhatsApp between Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The report from the Director of National Intelligence provided almost no new information directly linking bin Salman to the murder, affirming only that he “approved an operation to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” Still, that’s a tougher line than the Trump administration ever used.
Several top Saudi officials now face sanctions, including General Ahmed al-Asiri, previously the deputy head of Saudi intelligence, and the members of the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force who conducted the killing; notably, however, the crown prince—commonly referred to by his initials, MBS—will not be sanctioned. The only move that could affect him is that the State Department will now be empowered to revoke or restrict visas for individuals harassing dissidents and journalists extraterritorially, a fairly clear reference to the crown prince.
Yet, despite these moves, like so many aspects of his nascent presidency, Biden’s approach to Saudi Arabia so far is mostly a reversion to the pre-Trump status quo, rather than an overdue and fundamental shift in policy.
But a fundamental shift in policy is needed. The status quo in Saudi Arabia is unsustainable. As the world shifts away from reliance on Saudi oil, leaders in Riyadh can no longer afford to pay male citizens to sit in an office and female citizens to sit at home, while the real work is done by expat laborers. MBS has accelerated an economic and social transition that is necessary and should be encouraged. Eventually moving toward “normality” will mean either revolution in Saudi Arabia, or a less authoritarian government.
Read the full article in Politico.