On October 2, 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. In a matter of minutes he was assassinated and his body dismembered; his remains have never been found. While the last of many Riyadh stories described it as a “rogue operation,” the CIA quickly concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved of his assassination. But Donald Trump, an admirer of the cheeky young prince, declared otherwise and refused to act.
Joe Biden, then presidential candidate, promised that would make Saudi Arabia “pay the price and actually make them the pariah that it is.” Now that he’s in a position to deliver on his promise, he seems to have changed his mind. On Friday, Washington declassified an intelligence assessment on the assassination, as promised; the president must also snub the crown prince, dealing only with King Salman. But while the United States refuses to say whether Prince Mohammed is included in the “Khashoggi ban” it has imposed on the visas of 76 Saudi officials, the clear message is that everything remains the same, with only minor changes.
The reality is that the crown prince not only handles the day-to-day affairs, but is the 35-year-old heir to an elderly and ailing monarch. He has mercilessly fired his rivals; his predecessor as crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, is now in custody. While Prince Mohammed’s maneuvers have increased tensions and divisions in the royal family, they have also tightened his grip on power. Washington knows it can be dealing with him for decades to come. Biden may not call the crown prince, but his top officials do.
However, the protests come from politicians and people like former CIA director John Brennan, as well as Saudi dissidents, who are angry and scared. Just a few weeks ago, one missing while visiting the embassy in Ottawa, mysteriously reappearing in Saudi Arabia. Agnès Callamard, who investigated Khashoggi’s assassination for the UN, described the decision to appoint the crown prince without sanctioning him as “extremely dangerous” for the message of impunity that it sends. The businessmen who left the kingdom after the murder of the journalist are already becoming more comfortable.
United States is no longer dependent on Saudi oil as it was before, but sees the country as an essential security partner. Riyadh has made symbolic concessions to the new administration, including release women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, while continuing to place restrictions on him and keep others behind bars. Despite its much vaunted “modernization,” under Prince Mohammed it has become more repressive at home and more reckless abroad.
The crown prince led the way to war in Yemen that Riyadh now regrets and struggles to get out of. After tens of thousands of airstrikes and countless schools, hospitals and homes destroyed, the equally ruthless Houthi rebels have only gained ground. This is a deep-rooted and complex civil war in which multiple players, including southern secessionists, have conflicting interests and civilians are an afterthought at best. And while Biden has appointed a new envoy and declared the war must end, other priorities are higher on his agenda.
Nonetheless, the United States has finally cut off support for Saudi-led offensive weapons efforts and sales, though since it says it will still sell weapons for defensive purposes, the devil will be in the details. In contrast, the UK has made the repulsive decision to continue sending arms to Riyadh while cutting aid to Yemen by 50% this year as the humanitarian catastrophe deepens. As the UN Secretary General warned, with millions of people desperately in need, “cutting off aid is a death sentence.”
Britain’s decision is doubly shameful, not only because it is Yemen’s “pencil holder” on the UN security council, and has done little to fuel attempts to seek peace in the country, but because it is a provider. and a supporter of the Saudi-led Coalition. Biden has been rightly criticized for backtracking on his promises to punish the Saudis. But Britain seems, as it is, despicable, and increasingly isolated, in its utter disregard for the lives of Yemenis.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism