Saudi Crowned Prince Blazes Past US Sanctions over Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder

  • Evidence proves the prince’s involvement in cracking down on dissidents.
  • Yet, the Saudi prince blazes past the possibility of US-imposed sanctions. 
  • US and Saudi relations remain stable despite severe human rights violations. 

Why is Mohammed bin Salman’s heat level Blazing? 

Answer: Mohammed bin Salman narrowly escapes US sanctions and maintains good relations with his Western counterparts. 

In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi -a US-based journalist and critic of Saudi Arabia’s government- was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Over the past 2 years, there have been conflicting accounts as to what happened to the journalist and who was responsible. International observers and actors believed that the Saudi government had ordered the murder of the journalist, and officials in Turkey said that the agents responsible for Khashoggi’s death had acted on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi government. However, Saudi officials claimed that he was killed in a rogue operation. 

For many years the journalist had worked alongside the Saudi royal family and had served as an adviser to the government. However, in 2017 he went into self-imposed exile in the US as his relationship with high officials in the Saudi government went sour after he was barred from writing for undermining Donald Trump. During his time in exile, he began to write monthly columns which criticized the policies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

In his very first article, he expressed his fears of being arrested because of his dissent, highly opposed by the prince. Mohammed bin Salman felt betrayed by the journalist and felt Khashoggi threatened his reign through his criticism in a Washington Post article. 

Thanks to US intelligence, Joe Biden’s administration has concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince is responsible for Khashoggi’s killing, but as the US decides to avoid imposing sanctions, Mohammed bin Salman remains blazing.  The United States and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed a longstanding security relationship, as Saudi Arabia is the US’ largest foreign military sales customer. The two countries also share a common enemy, Iran, and so the US depends on Saudi Arabia to keep peace and stability in the region.

Thus, cutting diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia by sanctioning their prince would not be in the best interest of the United States, specially after the recent Halt of Arms Sales decision by the Biden administration. Ultimately, sanctions would mean that the bilateral relationship would be deemed as irreparable, but Prince Mohammed has managed to get away with the murder of Khashoggi and has kept US relations intact.

Who is changing Mohammed bin Salman’s temperature?

Answer: The US’ and the international community’s reactions posed a threat to Mohammed bin Salman’s blazing temperature, but weren’t troubling enough to congeal it.

The Biden administration has been faced with complex issues since former president Donald Trump handed over power. Numerous US intelligence operations have been conducted in order to clarify international controversies that came to light under the Trump administration, who refrained from investigating or blaming the prince. The US has since released a four-page report that pointed to the direct involvement of key lieutenants of the crown prince in the 2018 operations.

The conclusion was based on the Crown Prince’s control of decision-making in the kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of the prince’s protective detail. One of the most important conclusions that US intelligence came to was that Prince Mohammed personally supported the use of violent measures to silence dissidents abroad. In one of these operations, US intelligence concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved of the operation in Turkey that was to either “capture or kill” veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

By shedding light on just how the Saudi prince’s policy of cracking down on dissidents works in practice, the US has revealed the extent to which the Kingdom will go to silence critics forever. Although this may be controversial, it would not be a surprise coming from a Kingdom that has a compromised past when it comes to human rights violations. According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi authorities repress dissidents, human rights activists, and independent clerics, not allowing for the freedom of expression, association, and belief within the kingdom.

For instance, in 2019 Saudi prosecutors put Salman al-Awda and Hassan Farhan al-Maliki on trial facing death penalty for expressing their religious views and for supporting imprisoned dissidents. When the US was presented with evidence that the prince had colluded in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, President Joe Biden made a strategic move by choosing not to punish the prince directly, but rather to bar 76 Saudi nationals from travelling to the US and to sanction the officials involved in the killing.

Since the US merely released the intelligence record without imposing sanctions on Mohammed bin Salman, their public release is unlikely to have much of an impact on the prince’s policies. The US could have become an exemplar in human rights support by sanctioning the prince. However, there was no way for the US to penalize the “pariah” state without breaching their relationship with key Arab allies and putting US interests at risk. Unsurprisingly, Biden’s decision faced criticism from Saudi dissidents abroad and from the Washington post, where Khashoggi was a columnist at the time of his death. 

What is driving Mohammed bin Salman? 

Answer: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will do anything to maintain a stronghold on power inside and outside of the kingdom.

US intelligence has revealed that Mohammed bin Salman has an elite unit assigned to protect the prince and that carries out dozens of operations including forcibly repatriating Saudis and punishing dissidents like Khashoggi. This unit, known as the  Rapid Intervention Force (R.I.F.), was created in 2017 as the Prince rose to power, and it perfectly outlines Mohammed bin Salman’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents. 

The prince needs to maintain absolute control over what happens inside and outside of the kingdom. He wants to ensure that anyone who poses a threat to his sovereignty is silenced and dealt with accordingly. For instance, activists are now worried for Ahmed al-Harbi’s fate, a Saudi dissident based in Canada who has been missing for the last month; people fear he has also been “silenced” by the prince. Overall, dissidents such as Almed al-Harbi and Jamal Khashoggi threaten the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia’s stronghold on power by causing division and social disruption.

Social reform, campaigns for change, and criticism of the kingdom are seen as a direct attack on the monarchy. Maintaining the status quo, the strict religious laws, and cultural tradition is vital for the prince’s hold on power and to eliminate the social threat he faces. Consequently, there have been several investigations into the absolute monarchy and their systematic prosecution of anyone who defies them. For instance, Amnesty International has even spent five years investigating these sort of cases heard at the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh. 

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: As much as your morals may tell you that the murder of dissidents is wrong, the world will tell you that what matters is maintaining good political relations. 

Although the findings were expected and were of no surprise to most international observers, it brings fresh scrutiny on the prince’s autocratic leadership and threatens to strain relations between the US and one of its more traditional Arab allies. You may wonder how a country like the US -which is supposed to be an exemplar protector of human rights- can ignore the persecution of dissidents.  And you may also wonder how the Biden administration can sanction Russia because of their involvement with the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, but not the Saudi prince.

If you are American, you wonder what this means for Joe Biden’s administration and for his foreign policy. If leaders who uphold human rights and freedom of press can be convinced to avoid sanctions because of personal interests, it could have consequences for global governance and the controversial intentions of certain leaders.

If you are an activist in Saudi Arabia, you should be nervous about what this means for international support of reform and the protection of human rights inside and outside the kingdom. . 

If you are European, you may think that the Saudi’s will now turn to Europe, as they usually do when their relations with the US strain. However, the decisions such as the one taken by Biden towards Russia and Saudi Arabia are usually taken in harmony with the European Union, who will most likely side with the US in this case. 

Although we are supposedly living in an era of justice and free press, it is important to see what stance our politicians take that will actually protect and uphold basic freedoms. If our politicians choose to put national interests above standing up for the ideals of liberal democracy, we may be further from real freedom than we think.