Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, hit back at Joe Biden after the US President confronted him about the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a meeting between the two leaders on Friday.
In the meeting, Bin Salman, also known as MBS, denied responsibility for the killing of Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate. Biden said US intelligence contradicted the prince’s claims.
MBS countered with the sexual and physical abuse of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison by US military personnel and the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the occupied West Bank – incidents, he said, that reflected poorly on the US. Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, detailed parts of the conversation in a press conference on Saturday.
“The Crown Prince responded to President Biden’s remarks on … Khashoggi after quite clearly – that this crime, while very unfortunate and abhorrent, is something that the kingdom took very seriously (and) acted upon in a way commiserate with its position as a responsible country,” bin Farhan said. “These are issues, mistakes that happen in any country, including the US. The Crown Prince pointed out that the US has made its own mistakes and has taken the necessary action to hold those responsible accountable and address these mistakes just as the kingdom has.”
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir echoed the sentiment in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer shortly after the end of the meeting, which Jubeir was part of.
“We investigated, punished and ensure that this doesn’t happen again,” Jubeir said when asked about the Khashoggi murder. “This is what countries do. This is what the US did when the mistake of Abu Ghraib was committed.”
The Abu Ghraib prison was a US Army detention center for captured Iraqis from the start of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 until the prison’s closure in 2006. In 2004, a trove of graphic images from the prison was leaked, depicting the torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US military personnel. Eleven US soldiers were convicted of crimes relating to the scandal.
Renowned Al Jazeera journalist Abu Akleh was lethally gunned down during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.
Abu Akleh was a household name in the Arab world, having spent decades reporting on the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Footage obtained by CNN – corroborated by testimony from eight eyewitnesses, an audio forensic analyst and an explosive weapons expert – suggested that Abu Akleh, who was wearing a helmet and blue protective vest marked “Press” at the time of her killing, was shot dead in a targeted attack by Israeli forces.
In the West Bank on Friday, Biden said the US insists on a “full and transparent accounting” of the killing of the journalist.
Biden called Abu Akleh’s death an “enormous loss” as he stood alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.
“I hope that her legacy … will inspire more young people to carry on her work of reporting the truth and telling stories that are too often overlooked. The United States will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death and will continue to stand up for media freedom everywhere in the world,” Biden said.
Palestinian officials and members of Abu Akleh’s family have criticized the US probe and are urging the US to do more to hold Israel accountable for the killing.
Khashoggi raised at the top of Biden-MBS meeting
In a quickly arranged speech after Biden’s bilateral talks with MBS, the President said he raised Khashoggi’s murder at the start of the meeting.
“With respect to the murder of Khashoggi, I raised it at the top of the meeting, making it clear what I thought of it at the time and what I think of it now,” Biden told reporters. “I was straightforward and direct in discussing it. I made my view crystal clear.”
There was also a larger discussion about values, bin Farhan said.
“The Crown Prince pointed out to President Biden that we the kingdom, the respect for human rights is a core value for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia based on our Islamic beliefs and our Arab heritage. And that it’s absolutely important that values be spread through dialogue,” he said. “Trying to impose your values on others is not going to be effective. It will get you a negative reaction. … The right way to try and put your values forward is to show the world that you adhere first of all to those values, that you are respecting your own values.”
“In the endm you cannot impose your values by force. … The Crown Prince was quite clear with President Biden, and we have our own values and those are not going to align 100% with US values ever because we are very, very proud of our own traditions, our own values, our own faith,” bin Farhan added.
But the discussion about human rights appears to have been dwarfed by broader talks about energy security, regional stability, trade and investment, according to multiple officials. Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the war in Yemen are also believed to have been key parts of the discussions.
“Those responsible (for Khashoggi’s murder) have been investigated and faced the law and are paying the price for their crime,” Jubeir said on CNN of the discussion. “The conversation moved on in terms of the official discussion.”
Senior administration officials on Saturday defended Biden’s decision to meet with MBS face-to-face, despite the fierce pushback and criticism, saying it would have been “backsliding if the president didn’t come to the region and it would be backsliding if he didn’t and wasn’t willing to sit and raise human rights concerns with foreign leaders around the world.”
“It’s difficult to say that values are gonna be a key part of your foreign policy and human rights matters significantly to us as a nation and certainly as an administration and then not go overseas and not talk to (leaders) in candid, forthright ways about that concerns,” a senior administration official said.
Biden came to Jeddah seeking solutions to one of his top political problems at home – sky-high gas prices – as diplomacy with Saudi Arabia in the Middle East was seen as one of the few routes he could take to bring down prices that are putting strain on millions of Americans.
But White House officials say the President won’t be returning to Washington on Saturday with explicit oil production increases. The expectation is that there will be increases in the months ahead – done within the context of increased output levels in the OPEC+ cartel laid out at its August meeting.