The Biden administration on Sunday defended itself against criticism it failed to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, as allies of the US president left the door open to further action.
Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said the US wanted to “recalibrate” relations with Saudi Arabia, but not destroy them by imposing sanctions directly on Prince Mohammed after a US intelligence report found he approved an operation to “capture or kill” the veteran journalist in Turkey in 2018.
“Even in recent history Democratic and Republican administrations, there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders or foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations — and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” Psaki told CNN.
“We believe there is more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and also to be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement where there is interest national interest for the United States.”
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, last week announced a visa ban on 76 Saudi nationals believed to have been involved in threatening dissidents overseas in the wake of the intelligence report. That report concluded that the Saudi crown prince approved an operation in Turkey to “capture or kill” Khashoggi, a veteran journalist.
But the administration’s decision not to sanction Prince Mohammed individually has caused dismay among human rights activists and some Democrats in Congress.
Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said on Friday he wanted the White House to consider personal sanctions against the crown prince.
Andy Kim, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives’ foreign relations committee and a former national security official, tweeted on the weekend: “The lack of action against the crown prince sends a clear message across the globe that those at the top can escape consequences.”
Those criticisms echoed complaints from human rights and journalist groups, many of which have also called for Prince Mohammed to be personally sanctioned. The Society of Professional Journalists said on Friday it was “outraged” that no one has yet been held accountable for Khashoggi’s death, adding: “We will continue to push for justice for Khashoggi.
Biden is due to make an announcement on Monday about the future of the US-Saudi relationship, though officials said this weekend he was unlikely to announce any further immediate sanctions.
Prince Mohammed is not the Saudi head of state, but its day-to-day leader.
Sherrod Brown, another senior Democratic senator: “We need to make sure we make the Saudis, and particularly the Saudi member of the royal family or members of the royal family, we need to make them accountable.”
Asked whether this was likely to happen, he added: “I don’t think that’s a definitive, end-of-story decision. We’re talking to the White House. So are others. We need to hold any foreign authoritarian, like the royal family, some of the members of the royal family, we need hold them accountable.”
Chris Coons, one of Biden’s closest allies in the Senate, defended the president but also hinted of further action.
“We are not yet done with recalibrating the relationship between the United States and the Saudi kingdom, and I respect the way that President Biden has elevated human rights.”