Biden speaks with Saudi king ahead of Khashoggi report's release

Joanna Estrada
February 26, 2021

President Joe Biden held his first phone call with Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Thursday, ahead of the release of a long-awaited report by the United States intelligence community on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

In advance of the report's publication, President Joe Biden held a call Thursday with Saudi Arabia's King Salman.

The report's release is expected to coincide with the first phone conversation, possibly on Wednesday, between Biden and Saudi King Salman since Biden took over the presidency. And, despite the findings of USA intelligence officials, he accepted the crown prince's explanation that the killing of the journalist was a rogue operation in which he played no part.

What I do have is evidence suggesting that the responsibilities of high-level officials may be engaged, and therefore is requiring further investigation, in particular of the Crown Prince, for a variety of reasons. Since taking office, he has ended sales of offensive arms that Riyadh could use in Yemen and appointed a special envoy to boost diplomatic efforts to end that country's grueling civil war.

There was brief reference to Biden discussing the importance of "universal human rights and the rule of law". But there was nothing more specific about Saudi arrests of dissidents and journalists. But the administration never declassified the findings - even stripped of the sources and methods - and avoided questions about Crown Prince Mohammed.

But Biden has said he wants to maintain strong ties with one of Washington's closest Arab allies.

In May 2019, Trump had declared a national emergency over tensions with Iran to sidestep objections from Congress about the sale of $8bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan.

In this December 15, 2014 file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain.

But then-President Donald Trump moved to shield Saudi royals, particularly MBS, from criticism - often citing the kingdom's arms deals with USA weapons manufacturers and its geopolitical role as a regional counterweight to Iran. They fear Biden will go with condemnation instead, eschewing a lasting standoff with the likely future ruler of an important, but often hard, USA strategic ally, valued both for its oil reserves and its status as a counterbalance to Iran in the Middle East.

That will be harder to do as Prince Mohammed, sometimes referred to by his initials: MBS, takes tighter control of the kingdom. Mohammed (also known by his initials, MBS) had swiftly risen to be the kingdom's de facto leader and pledged to bring modern reforms to the highly conservative oil-rich country.

Still, the very decision to declassify parts of the intelligence report, a legal requirement, is considered by some a shot at the crown prince. The focus has been on who ordered the killing.

A Saudi court earlier exonerated two senior Saudi officials - Saud al-Qahtani, a powerful royal media adviser, and Ahmed al-Assiri, a former deputy head of intelligence - who Saudi prosecutors found had played key roles in planning the Khashoggi meeting.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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