Biden’s Untapped Options to Pressure Saudi Arabia Over Khashoggi

The Biden administration imposed only modest new sanctions Friday after releasing an intelligence report that said Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signed off on the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But other steps will follow within days.

President Joe Biden said in an interview with Univision News that he told Saudi King Salman in a phone call this week that “the rules are changing,” and Biden said the administration will announce more actions on Monday.

Here are options that may yet be considered:


Friday’s actions didn’t include sanctions on Prince Mohammed, and administration officials indicated that’s unlikely to change. “What we’ve done by the actions we’ve taken is not to rupture the relationship but to recalibrate it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters. He said it’s “bigger than any one person.”

Instead, Blinken announced Friday what he called a new “Khashoggi Ban” policy, barring U.S. visas for 76 Saudi individuals who the U.S. said had threatened dissidents abroad.

The quickest additional step would be to slap sanctions on more members of the crown prince’s inner circle, perhaps in the form of asset freezes. Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, has called for sanctions under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which gives the U.S. broad authority to impose human-rights sanctions on foreign officials.

“I’m understanding that there may be some additional Magnitsky sanctions by the administration, and that’s very, very important,” Kaine said earlier in the week.

Weapons Sales:

The administration froze sales of munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in its first days in office as part of a broader policy review. Although sales to the UAE are expected to go through, the U.S. may scrap the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in its campaign in Yemen, which has become one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

The review seeks a balance between the goal of ending the war in Yemen and making sure Saudi Arabia has the weapons it needs to defend itself, a State Department spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity. The U.S. is likely to continue selling weapons such as air-defense missiles to help Saudi Arabia protect itself from attacks by Iran and its surrogates.

Naming, Shaming:

Simply declassifying the Khashoggi report is a departure from the Trump administration, which sought to avoid humiliating or criticizing senior Saudi leaders. Providing more details about the crown prince’s involvement would weaken his standing as he seeks to further consolidate power ahead of his expected elevation to king once his father, now 85, passes away.

The U.S. could easily take more such symbolic moves, such as delaying a meeting between top leaders or scaling back language praising Saudi Arabia’s role as a key ally. That would complicate the crown prince’s effort to portray his nation as a modern and responsible player in world affairs despite rights violations at home against women, non-Muslims and gay people.

That approach has its dangers. The crown prince, known as MBS, isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon, and humiliating him now could sour the relationship for decades to come.

“It’s the power of embarrassment,” said Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The danger is that if you personalize the critique of MBS, it won’t be forgotten, and this is a person who is going to be in Saudi leadership for a long time.”

Ending the Yemen War:

For years, even as other allies such as the UAE have backed off the fight in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has pressed ahead with its campaign. The U.S. could extract a commitment from the Saudis to get to the negotiating table with the Iran-backed Houthis and forge a deal at last.

Saudi Arabia has signaled it’s willing to work with the Biden administration on a way to end the fighting, but the U.S. has less influence over the Houthis, who this month attacked an airport in the kingdom’s south.

Diplomatic Demands:

The U.S. has a number of priorities in the Middle East, chief among them its desire to get back into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that President Donald Trump abandoned. Saudi Arabia has always been deeply wary of the deal. Options may include demanding that the Saudis at least tone down their lobbying efforts in the U.S. against a renewed agreement.

The Biden administration could also demand that Saudi Arabia improve ties with Israel, possibly including a formal declaration of diplomatic ties. Agreements like that were a top priority for the Trump administration, but Trump’s team wasn’t able to lock down that one.

In a statement responding to the U.S. intelligence report, the Saudi foreign ministry said Friday, “The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the Kingdom’s leadership, and notes that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions.”

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