The Biden administration announced sanctions and visa bans on Friday targeting Saudi Arabian citizens over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but stopped short of imposing sanctions on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s actions in the first weeks of his administration appear aimed at fulfilling campaign promises to realign Saudi ties after critics accused his predecessor, Donald Trump, of giving the Arab ally and major oil producer a pass on gross human rights violations.
A senior Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the approach aims to create a new launching-off point for ties with the kingdom without breaking a core relationship in the Middle East. Relations have been severely strained for years by the war in Yemen and the killing inside a Saudi consulate of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote columns for the Washington Post critical of the crown prince’s policies.
Importantly, the decisions appear designed to preserve a working relationship with the crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto leader, even though U.S. intelligence concluded that he approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.
“The aim is a recalibration (in ties) – not a rupture. That’s because of the important interests that we do share,” the senior Biden administration official said.
The 59-year old Saudi journalist was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018 and killed by a team of operatives linked to the crown prince. They then dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.
The U.S. Treasury Department placed sanctions on the former deputy Saudi intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Asiri, and announced a sanctions designation on the Saudi Royal Guard’s rapid intervention force, or RIF.
The RIF was singled out in the declassified U.S. intelligence report for its role in Khashoggi’s killing.
The move freezes any U.S. assets that the Saudi individuals held and generally bars Americans from dealing with them.
“Those involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi must be held accountable,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.
The United States also announced visa restrictions against 76 Saudi citizens as part of a new policy aimed at nations that carry out activities against journalists and dissidents beyond their borders. Such activities include efforts to suppress, harass, surveil, threaten or harm them.
The visa ban will also be selectively applied to family members, officials said.
“As a matter of safety for all within our borders, perpetrators targeting perceived dissidents on behalf of any foreign government should not be permitted to reach American soil,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement.
A second U.S. official noted that, although Saudi citizens were named in the first use of what the State Department called the “Khashoggi Ban” on visas, “it’s really a new global tool.”
Additionally, the U.S. State Department said it will start documenting in its annual human rights report any programs by Saudi Arabia and other countries that monitor, harass or target dissidents and journalists.
Riyadh eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in a “rogue” extradition operation gone wrong, but it denied any involvement by the crown prince. Five men given the death penalty for the murder had their sentences commuted to 20 years in prison after being forgiven by Khashoggi’s family.
Biden administration officials say the decisions on sanctions and visa bans will send a clear message about how the United States wants to see the future U.S.-Saudi relationship.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has already held talks with the 35-year-old crown prince.
Asked about any debate about applying sanctions against the crown prince, the first U.S. official said that the United States has not generally applied sanctions “on the highest leadership of countries.”
“We really (came to) the unanimous conclusion that there’s just other, more effective means to dealing with these issues going forward,” the official said.
Biden earlier this month declared a halt to U.S. support for a Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen, demanding that the more than six-year war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, had to end.
In relation to this the Biden’s administration is now considering the cancellation of arms deals with Saudi Arabia that pose human rights concerns while limiting future military sales to “defensive” weapons, as it reassesses it relationship with the kingdom.
Four sources familiar with the administration’s thinking said that after pausing half a billion dollars in arms deals with Saudi Arabia out of concern over casualties in Yemen earlier this year, officials are assessing the equipment and training included in recent sales to determine what can be considered defensive. Those deals would be allowed.
A State Department spokesperson said, “Our focus is on ending the conflict in Yemen even as we ensure Saudi Arabia has everything it needs to defend its territory and its people,” adding Biden has pledged to end U.S. military support for the military campaign against the Houthis.
The Biden administration is recalibrating its relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country with which it has severe human rights concerns but which is also one of Washington’s closest U.S. allies in countering the threat posed by Iran.
“They’re trying to figure out where do you draw the lines between offensive weapons and defensive stuff,” said one congressional aide familiar with the issue, describing the process. The Biden administration is expected as soon as Friday to release a sensitive U.S. intelligence report on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote for The Washington Post.
The report finds that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de factor ruler, approved the killing, U.S. officials said.
Sales of products deemed defensive – like Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defense systems made by Lockheed Martin or Patriot missile defense systems made by Lockheed and Raytheon – would still be allowed under such the new policy. But it would end big-ticket deals — for products such as precision-guided munitions (PGM) and small-diameter bombs — like those brokered under former President Donald Trump in the face of strong objections from members of Congress. After he lost the Nov. 3 presidential election, Trump’s State Department kept approving weapons sales that could be considered offensive.
It cleared the sale of Boeing Co GBU-39 small diameter bombs worth some $290 million to Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration also gave its blessing to the sale to Riyadh of 7500 Raytheon PGMs for nearly $480 million.
The weapons review also affects $23 billion of deals with the United Arab Emirates, another country that has been an important U.S. partner.
On Jan. 20, the day that Trump left office and Biden became president, the UAE signed agreements with the outgoing administration to buy up to 50 F-35 jets, 18 armed drones and other defense equipment in a deal worth $23 billion.
That sale, which the Trump administration justified as allowing the UAE to deter Iranian “threats,” is also among those being reviewed by the Biden administration.
Congress had voted to block the UAE deal out of concern that it was being rushed through without sufficient assurances that the equipment would not fall into the wrong hands, but the Republican-controlled Senate did not override his veto.
U.S. lawmakers said they would be more comfortable with limits on offensive weapons, with many vehemently opposed to the continued massive sales of munitions that they said have contributed to the humanitarian disaster in Yemen.
“We should continue to sell military equipment to our partners in the Gulf, but we should make sure that these really are truly defensive arms,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations this week.
Murphy, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Middle East subcommittee, said sales of items like armed Reaper drones to the UAE could fuel a regional arms race.
While Trump saw weapons sales as a way to create American jobs, Biden appears to revert to a stance that weighs human rights abuses more seriously than under the Trump presidency, a defense industry executive said.