President claims sanction for Mohammed bin Salman would have been diplomatically unprecedented but overstates US-Saudi ties
Mohammed bin Salman. Rights groups, Saudi dissidents and journalists have condemned the decision not to sanction the Saudi heir. Photograph: Bandar Algaloud/Reuters
The Guardian-Guardian staff and agencies
Joe Biden has defended his decision to waive any punishment for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in the murder of a US-based journalist, claiming that acting against the Saudi royal would have been diplomatically unprecedented for the United States.
In an ABC News interview that aired on Wednesday, the US president discussed his administration’s decision to exempt Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from any penalties for the October 2018, killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Last month, the Biden administration released a declassified US intelligence report which concluded that the crown prince authorized the team of Saudi security and intelligence officials that killed Khashoggi.
“We held accountable all the people in that organization – but not the crown prince, because we have never, that I’m aware of … when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person and ostracized him,” Biden said in his first extended public comments on his administration’s decision.
Biden overstated the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The United States has no treaty binding itself with Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom is not one of the Arab countries designated as a major non-Nato ally. The US often refers to the kingdom as a strategic partner because of its oil production, its status as a regional counterbalance to Iran and its counterterrorism cooperation.
The US recognizes that serving heads of state or governments should be granted immunity from prosecution under international law. But Prince Mohammed’s father, King Salman, remains the titular head of state of Saudi Arabia, and the US has never officially granted immunity to an “acting head of state.”
The Biden administration last month released the US intelligence report concluding the prince’s approval of the killing of Khashoggi, who at the time of his killing was living in the United States and writing critically for the Washington Post about the prince’s rights abuses as he consolidated power.
The US has imposed visa restrictions and penalties on the Saudi agents who killed and dismembered Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Biden’s inaction against the prince was a turnabout from his campaign, when Biden spoke scathingly of the royal family and said he wanted to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the killing and other abuses.
Rights groups, Saudi dissidents and journalists criticized the decision not to punish the crown prince, saying it signaled impunity for the royal and other authoritarian leaders in the future.
Biden noted that he had approved releasing the intelligence report and also said he had “made it clear” to Saudi Arabia’s aging king “that things were going to change.” King Salman, who is in his mid-80s, has allowed his son broad governing authority.