Your administration just gave Saudi Arabia’s crown prince a license to kill. Again. By giving him immunity from a lawsuit stemming from his role in the brutal slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, you are denying justice to the victim’s family and supporters.
The State Department’s decision to give sovereign immunity to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lets him get away with a murder that you and the CIA fingered him for. The rationale for the immunity is that he is a head of state, but the crime was committed four years before he mounted that platform. And that raises questions about his “promotion.”
MBS, as he’s known, is the favorite son of the aging king, who is the real head of state and government. So why suddenly the new title?
Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and the human rights group Khashoggi founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now, (DAWN), have sued MBS and about 20 other Saudis. MBS’s lawyers asked US District Judge John Bates to dismiss the case on the grounds of sovereign immunity. Lo and behold, three days before the court’s deadline, daddy named Mohammad prime minister.
Using that rationale, State Department lawyers ruled last week that he should be immune even from civil litigation. Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 12, 2018, as his fiancée waited outside. He was tortured, killed and dismembered; his remains were disposed of without a trace.
American intelligence officials believe this was not the first hit job MBS ordered, and with his new US-issued get-out-of-jail-free card, it is unlikely to be the last.
MBS IS the de facto head of a ruthless, authoritarian regime that dispatches hit squads around the world to silence dissidents and his critics. Sa’ad Aljabri, the former number two in Saudi intelligence, told 60 Minutes he fled to Canada after he learned the “psychopath” MBS toppled his patron, the previous crown prince, and sent a squad of assassins after him.
MBS’s promotion from de facto to de jure is a contrivance to avoid justice.
C’mon man, Mr. President. As you like to quote your father, “the greatest sin of all is the abuse of power.” Well, that’s what you’ve just blessed.
Shrugging off the Khashoggi killing
I can understand why the previous administration tried to shrug off the Khashoggi killing. Donald Trump bragged repeatedly that the wealthy Saudis were some of his best customers for Manhattan properties. Last week, the former president signed a $4 billion deal with a Saudi real estate company to build hotels, villas and a golf course – presumably with his name plastered on them – in Oman, and his company is deeply involved in the Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf tournaments at his clubs.
When news of the murder broke, Jared Kushner, the former first son-in-law, rushed to advise his friend Mohammed on crisis management. By sheer coincidence, MBS invested $2 billion from the kingdom’s Sovereign Fund in Jared’s post-White House business.
Trump refused to declassify the CIA findings, which concluded MBS “approved an operation in Istanbul to capture or kill.” The Biden administration released the report soon after getting to the Oval Office, as promised.
As a candidate, Mr. President, you called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state whose leadership had “very little social redeeming value.” You said you’d hold them accountable and wouldn’t shake the killer prince’s bloody hand.What happened? They played you like a cheap fiddle.
FIRST, THERE was the ill-advised trip in July to Jeddah and a lame fist bump. You mentioned nothing in public about the murder, but said you raised it “at the top of the (private) meeting” and MBS denied involvement in the murder. MBS’s aides leaked that he later mocked you in private as unimpressive.
You asked him to boost oil production, but instead he turned around and sided with Russia at OPEC by cutting output, driving up oil prices at the American pump, knowing it would give Republicans an issue that helped them in the midterm elections.
You said you were “disappointed” in that decision and promised “consequences.” Yet when that opportunity arose, your administration blew it. It should have let the courts hold him accountable for a crime he committed four years before daddy promoted him.
Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan, whose paper Khashoggi wrote for, accused the president of “failing to uphold America’s most cherished values” and “turning his back on fundamental principles of press freedom and equality.”Sovereign immunity is customary for national leaders but not mandatory, and Judge Bates could overrule the State Department, although that is considered unlikely. That means “the pariah is now above the law,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council expert on counterterrorism.
The decision provoked outrage among human rights activists, counter-terrorism officials and political leaders. Members of Congress, mostly Democrats, want to limit or stop arms sales to the oil-rich kingdom, remove our forces and military cover, and examine the value of the alliance.
Sen. Richard Durbin, second in the Senate Democratic leadership, said, “It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without this alliance with these royal back-stabbers.”
Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, told The Washington Post that “the regime is going out of its way to make clear its disdain for American values and interests.”
The relationship is long overdue for a full reassessment. It is time to ask whether Saudi Arabia is an ally or not, and how reliable.
As MBS openly flirts with Russia and China, saying he may decide to buy his weapons there instead of America, we have to ask whether we can trust him with our top technology, and whether continued US strategic, diplomatic and political support is in this country’s national interest.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist and former AIPAC legislative director.