US President Joe Biden spoke with Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Thursday, stressing the importance of human rights and vowing to make the relationship between the two countries stronger and more transparent, the White House said.Biden "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law," and the two leaders discussed the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend itself against attacks by Iran-aligned groups, the White House said.This was ahead of the expected release of a US intelligence report on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi that may test ties.
The report is a declassified version of a top-secret assessment that sources say singles out the king's son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for approving the murder of Khashoggi in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.
A person familiar with the issue told Reuters that the report's release was awaiting the Biden call. The release also was delayed as the crown prince, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, underwent surgery earlier this week, the person said.
Khashoggi, who wrote Washington Post columns critical of the crown prince's policies, had been a US resident.
The release of the declassified report on his death is part of Biden's recalibration of US-Saudi relations in part over Khashoggi's murder.
But Biden has made clear that he wants to maintain strong ties with one of Washington's closest Arab allies.
"Our administration is focused on recalibrating the relationship," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a briefing. "And certainly there are areas where we will express concerns and leave open the option of accountability."
"There are also areas where we will continue to work with Saudi Arabia given the threats they face in the region," she added in an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia's main rival and US foe, Iran.
"There are a range of actions that are on the table" regarding Saudi Arabia," Psaki said, adding that the next step was for Biden to speak to Salman "very soon."
Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi mission. There, he was killed by an team of Saudi operatives, linked to the crown prince, who dismembered his body. It has never been found.
Saudi Arabia called Khashoggi's death a "rogue" extradition operation gone awry, but denied the crown prince was involved.
Five people were convicted of the murder and given the death penalty in a 2019 trial, but their sentences were commuted to 20 years in jail after Khashoggi's family forgave them. Three other received sentences totaling 24 years.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a call on Thursday with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al Saud and "discussed the importance of Saudi progress on human rights," the State Department said.
They also discussed "joint efforts to bolster" Saudi defenses, and cooperation on ending the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is backing the government against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement, said State Department spokesman Ned Price.