Senior US officials have conveyed to Saudi Arabia that the US is prepared to move forward with a “reset” of the relationship, and effectively move on from the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in order to repair ties with the key Middle East ally, senior US officials tell CNN.
The planning for a reset is a dramatic about-face for President Joe Biden, who came into office vowing to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s murder. His administration also released an intelligence report last year that directly accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of orchestrating Khashoggi’s killing.
But officials say Biden, who is under immense pressure to crack down on Russia and lower domestic gas prices amid inflation that’s rising at the fastest pace since 1981, has set aside his moral outrage to pursue warmer relations with the Kingdom amid the dramatic global upheaval spurred by the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Both sides have decided that for the sake of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East, we need to move past it,” said one senior US official, referring to Khashoggi’s murder. The Saudis, for their part, consider the Khashoggi case closed—and have made that clear to the US, officials said.
That doesn’t mean forgiving and forgetting, the sources noted. Biden, they said, does plan to raise Khashoggi’s murder directly with MBS, as the crown prince is known, when they meet as soon as next month. And some officials inside the administration still believe more should be done to hold MBS accountable for the crime. But the shift is now well underway after months of meetings in Riyadh between two of Biden’s top national security advisers, Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, and Saudi officials, including MBS. And it is already sparking outrage, with Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, accusing Biden of losing his moral compass.
“President Biden’s decision to meet MBS is horribly upsetting to me and supporters of freedom and justice everywhere,” she said in a statement to CNN.
A human rights defender in Washington close to the administration, who was also a close friend of Khashoggi’s, told CNN that he believes moving on and doing nothing more to hold MBS accountable for Khashoggi’s killing will deal a huge blow to the prince’s opposition and Arab dissidents around the world.
“The promise of accountability was the only check on this guy [MBS], now it’s gone,” he said. “When the President of the US goes to this murderer’s hometown to appease him, he’s not only glossing over his past heinous crimes with stunning impunity but enabling his future ones. It’s a wink-wink nudge-nudge to commit the next crime in a cleaner, less messy fashion.”
US officials told CNN that the decision to meet with MBS has been a tough pill to swallow for the President, who said in 2019 that Saudi Arabia had “no redeeming social value.” But they said the countries have agreed that the relationship cannot be held “hostage” by the murder, especially given how dramatically the world has changed since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Among the US’ most important foreign policy goals now is to isolate Russia politically and cut off funding for its war machine by banning Russian oil exports – two objectives that officials believe will be nearly impossible if Saudi Arabia is not on the US’ side, particularly when it comes to increasing oil production to try to stabilize global oil markets. The President and his senior national security advisers therefore believe that to “shun” Saudi Arabia over the murder of Khashoggi would be shortsighted.
The troubling economic trends, particularly when it comes to record high domestic gas prices and soaring inflation, have also come to dominate the priorities of the administration and shunted others aside, said a US official outside the White House.
“I do think the desperation of the trajectory of the global economy is driving everything,” the official said. “They [the White House] are anxious, they are desperate.”
“Their fear, and their anxiety, is making them throw principle out the door,” the official added. “The worst [economic] outcomes on this are really bad and would devastate any hopes the Democrats would have in November.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN en Español on Wednesday that the administration never sought to fully “rupture” US-Saudi relations, even after releasing the report last year that put MBS at the center of Khashoggi’s murder. But he said that the US would continue “to make sure that human rights is fully reflected in our foreign policy.”
Oil prices driving the reset
Biden’s advisers have said openly that the need to increase oil production to stabilize prices is a key driver of the Saudi reset.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday that “there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has to account for what they did with Jamal Khashoggi.” But, she added, “there is also no question that we have to increase global [oil] supply. And OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, is at the head of the pack for that.”
There are of course things the Saudis want in return from the US, including a viable strategy for dealing with Iran – the Kingdom’s biggest regional enemy – as the US struggles to finalize a new nuclear deal. The Saudis also want security commitments, like the continued provision of missile defense systems, officials said.
But White House officials argue that Saudi Arabia has been working with the US in good faith over the last several months, which has made the White House more confident that a meeting between Biden and MBS will be fruitful.
US officials have repeatedly pointed to the fragile ceasefire in Yemen reached in April and the Saudi’s ouster of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was viewed by many officials in the region and in the US as an impediment to peace, as major diplomatic victories that would not have been possible without US engagement. The two-month-old ceasefire, which was extended last week, is the first between the warring Saudis and Houthis in six years.
“I’m not going to change my view on human rights,” Biden said last week. “But as President of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
Working on a ‘significant agenda’
A National Security Council spokesperson noted that the Khashoggi murder took place during the Trump administration, telling CNN that the US is “not looking past any conduct that took place before we entered office.” The spokesperson pointed to the sanctions the US has imposed on Saudi individuals believed to have been involved in Khashoggi’s murder and others implicated in human rights abuses.
But the spokesperson also said the US has “a significant agenda with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the other countries of the Middle East. That agenda is focused on delivering results for the American people as well as ending wars and leading through diplomacy to bring stability to the Middle East region.”
Last week’s agreement by OPEC+ to increase oil production by 200,000 barrels per day in July and August, a decision spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, was another show of good faith by the Saudis, officials believe. And with help from the United States, relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are also slowly but steadily improving, officials noted – discussions are underway now, for example, to expand Israeli commercial planes’ access to Saudi airspace, the sources said. One regional official briefed on the discussions said Israel wants the Saudis to allow Israeli Arab Muslims to fly to the Kingdom for religious pilgrimages.
Israel has been pushing heavily for the Biden-MBS meeting to happen, multiple officials said. And underscoring the changing nature of the Israel-Saudi relationship, Biden is expected to make an extraordinarily rare flight directly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh on Air Force One while in the Middle East next month, according to two regional officials briefed on the plans.
Still, those developments are unlikely to satisfy activists and American lawmakers who continue to call for further accountability and justice for Khashoggi.
“The highest levels of the Saudi government, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are culpable in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, and there is no escaping that stark truth laid bare in the U.S. Intelligence Community’s 2021 public assessment,” top House lawmakers wrote in a letter to Biden earlier this week. “We must continue to insist on justice for this horrific crime.”