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Hold Mohammed bin Salman Accountable for His Crimes

Even if he escapes personal accountability for the foreseeable future, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has to change.
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The Biden administration will be releasing a declassified version of the intelligence report on Jamal Khashoggi’s murder on Thursday. The report identifies the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman as the one ultimately responsible for the grisly killing:

A declassified version of a U.S. intelligence report expected to be released on Thursday finds that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, four U.S. officials familiar with the matter said.

The report’s findings are not really news, but it is good that they are being made public to bring renewed attention to the case. It was all but certain in the fall of 2018 that Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death, and subsequent investigations have reached similar conclusions, but between the Trump administration’s obfuscations and the Saudi government’s denials the crown prince has been able to evade accountability for more than two years. With any luck, the crown prince won’t be able to get away with it for much longer. Even if he escapes personal accountability for the foreseeable future, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has to change.

The involvement of so many of the crown prince’s close associates in the murder and the attempted cover-up made it obvious that he was the one giving the orders. The presence of a forensic pathologist as part of the team showed that murder and dismemberment had been the plan from the start. The Saudis staged a farcical trial that let Saud al-Qahtani and many other perpetrators off the hook, and this was done to keep up the pretense that the murder wasn’t authorized at the highest levels.

The decision to release the report is a welcome one, but Biden needs to do more to change the nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. As Annelle Sheline points out this week, the Biden administration has been slow to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah as Biden promised he would do during the campaign. It is encouraging that this administration isn’t going to go out of its way to defend the crimes of high-ranking Saudi officials, but the entire relationship needs to be downgraded as long as the crown prince wields such extensive influence in their government. The U.S. cannot control what the Saudi government does or how it treats its own citizens, but it can raise the political costs for the Saudi leadership when they commit crimes and it can reduce U.S. exposure to their wrongdoing. Washington has considerable influence with the Saudi government, and it is time that it began to use it to rein in their abuses both in Yemen and in how they treat their own people.

Mohammed bin Salman is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, but at the moment he is still not the king and does not enjoy the immunity that would typically go with that position. He should not be granted immunity, and he should have to answer for the crimes that he and his agents have committed. Khashoggi is the most well-known of the crown prince’s victims, but he is hardly the only one. The U.S. should do nothing to shield him from accountability, and it should make him persona non grata in this country.



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