Joe Biden has told Saudi Arabia’s King Salman that he will “hold them accountable for human rights abuses”.
The president’s warning came after a newly declassified intelligence report concluded that the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is likely to have approved an operation to kill or capture a US-based journalist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Jamal Khashoggi, an exiled journalist who was a frequent critic of the crown prince, was murdered in October 2018.
Speaking to Univision News, Mr Biden confirmed that he had spoken to King Salman on Thursday, and had warned there will be “significant changes” in the country’s relationship with the US.
The report, contributed to mostly by the CIA, said the crown prince’s “absolute control” of the kingdom’s intelligence organisations would make it highly unlikely that such an operation could have been carried out without his authorisation.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry rejected the accusation, calling the report’s assessment “negative, false and unacceptable” and its conclusion “unjustified and inaccurate”.
A statement called the murder “an abhorrent crime and a flagrant violation of the kingdom’s laws and values”.
The central conclusion of the report was widely expected – given that intelligence officials were said to have reached it soon after the brutal murder of Mr Khashoggi. He had written opinion columns for the Washington Post that were critical of the crown prince’s policies.
But it will be seen as an extraordinary rebuke of the ambitious 35-year-old Saudi leader, and is likely to set the tone for the Biden administration’s relationship with the kingdom.
Mr Biden has previously criticised Saudi Arabia, but in some contexts, the White House also regards it as a strategic partner.
Following the release of the report, a statement from US secretary of state Antony Blinken described it as a “horrific killing” and announced new visa restrictions.
The statement said: “The Khashoggi Ban allows the State Department to impose visa restrictions on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities…”
“…including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work, or who engage in such activities with respect to the families or other close associates of such persons.
“Family members of such individuals also may be subject to visa restrictions under this policy, where appropriate.”
It added: “While the US remains invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, President Biden has made clear that partnership must reflect US values.
“To that end, we have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents, and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States.”
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Mr Khashoggi, 59, had visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, planning to pick up documents needed for his wedding.
Once inside, he died at the hands of more than a dozen Saudi security and intelligence officials and others who had assembled ahead of his arrival.
Surveillance cameras had tracked his route and those of his alleged killers in Istanbul in the hours leading up to his killing.
A Turkish bug planted at the consulate reportedly captured the sound of a forensic saw, operated by a Saudi colonel who was also a forensics expert, dismembering Mr Khashoggi’s body within an hour of him entering the building.
His body has still not been found.
In 2019, the crown prince said he took “full responsibility” for the killing since it happened on his watch, but denied ordering it.
Saudi officials have said Mr Khashoggi’s killing was the work of rogue Saudi security and intelligence officials.
Saudi Arabian courts last year announced they had sentenced eight Saudi nationals to prison. They were not identified.
US report humiliates MbS – and Biden might hope it cuts him down to size
Analysis by Alistair Bunkall, defence and security correspondent
In reality, there was little we didn’t already know, or rather suspect, from the declassified US intelligence report.
But its release puts into public record confirmation that the CIA believes Jamal Khashoggi’s killing was authorised by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
That being the case, it might seem strange that Joe Biden hasn’t taken any action against Saudi Arabia’s young, de facto leader.
That decision will no doubt be criticised as weak by some, but the White House believes the very release of the report is a punishment in itself: it humiliates MbS and, Mr Biden might hope, will cut him down to size.
Already, Mr Biden has made it clear his administration will pursue a very different relationship with Riyadh than the cosier entente under Mr Trump.
The new president sees Saudi’s King Salman as his like-for-like counterpart, not the crown prince, and the White House has stopped weapons sales to Saudi Arabia because of their use in Yemen.
It’s a delicate game. Push Riyadh too far and hopes for a peace deal in Yemen might drift further away. But Biden also wants to open dialogue again with Saudi Arabia’s arch regional enemy, Iran. Taking a more consistent ethics-based approach to all might help.
What is unlikely to change is Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation within Saudi Arabia and destiny as the Kingdom’s next ruler. He has widespread support, particularly among the younger generations, and as long as he can deliver the liberal social reform they want, this is unlikely to be anything more than a blip.