Five years ago, Jamal Khashoggi walked into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to pick up a document he needed in order to marry his Turkish fiancée. The journalist never walked out. Inside the consulate, he was ambushed by a 15-member Saudi hit team, who suffocated him and dismembered his body with a bone saw. The death squad then slipped out of Turkey on two charter planes owned by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
Since then, Mohammed bin Salman – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, who, according to US intelligence officials, approved Khashoggi’s assassination – has managed a near complete rehabilitation of his increasingly autocratic regime. Prince Mohammed has met with Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders; he’s positioning Saudi Arabia as a global tourism destination; and he’s plowing ahead with plans to build Neom, his $500bn futuristic city in the desert. The prince has spent more than $6bn on investments in football teams, golf tournaments and other sports deals. He’s pouring billions more into Silicon Valley tech companies – all part of an effort to whitewash the kingdom’s abysmal human rights record.
The Biden administration is also investing enormous political capital in convincing Prince Mohammed to sign a peace agreement with Israel, modeled on the Abraham Accords which Donald Trump’s administration brokered between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain. In exchange, the Saudis are trying to extract a steep price from Biden: a mutual defense treaty that would guarantee the US would defend Saudi Arabia if it is attacked, and helping the kingdom launch a civilian nuclear program. It’s a far cry from Biden’s pledge during the last US presidential campaign to treat Prince Mohammed and his regime as a “pariah” for the murder of Khashoggi and other human rights violations.
How did Prince Mohammed manage such a successful reversal of fortune and laundering of his reputation within five years of a grisly murder and botched cover-up that initially shocked the world? In short, the prince had help from two very different US presidents, Trump and Biden, who ultimately shared the same foreign policy priorities that have cut across Democratic and Republican administrations for decades. Even when they pledge to take a different path – as Biden did – US leaders eventually favor short-term economic and security interests over democratic principles and protecting human rights.
Unlike Biden, Trump and senior members of his administration never wavered in their support for Prince Mohammed and the Saudi regime, even as the international outcry over Khashoggi’s killing intensified. On 11 October 2018, nine days after Khashoggi disappeared in Istanbul, Trump was asked in the Oval Office whether he would cancel billions of dollars in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia if its leaders were implicated in the assassination. Trump responded: “We don’t like it even a little bit. But whether or not we should stop $110bn from being spent in this country … That would not be acceptable to me.”
For Trump, Khashoggi’s murder was acceptable collateral damage. As crass as Trump’s comments seemed at the time, they were a remarkably honest explanation of US foreign policy priorities. Unlike his predecessors, Trump did not bother with lofty rhetoric about human rights and political freedom to obscure decades of American military support for repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Trump dropped the pretense that the US-Saudi alliance is anything more than a transactional arrangement based on keeping global oil prices stable, common security interests in the Middle East, and negotiating large weapons deals.
Biden took up the same rhetorical façade of past US presidents, but his administration ended up appeasing Prince Mohammed in much the same way that Trump did. Biden quickly failed to live up to his promise to center US foreign policy around protecting human rights, and his pledge during the presidential campaign to seek accountability for Khashoggi’s assassination.
In February 2021, a month after taking office, Biden did follow through on a campaign promise to release a long-delayed US intelligence report, which directly blamed Prince Mohammed for Khashoggi’s murder, noting that since 2017, he “has had absolute control of the kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization”. The report said seven members of the Rapid Intervention Force, an elite unit that protects the crown prince and answers directly to him, were part of the Saudi hit team that ambushed Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Despite the evidence, Biden decided not to directly punish Prince Mohammed by imposing a travel ban or sanctions against him. That decision signaled to the crown prince and his supporters that Biden would not follow through on his promise to turn the Saudi regime into a “pariah” – and it emboldened Prince Mohammed to continue his crackdown on dissidents at home and abroad.
After initially reviewing weapons sales to Saudi Arabia due to the high rate of civilian casualties in its war against Yemen, by mid-2022 the Biden administration resumed billions of dollars in arms sales and military support to the kingdom. In fact, between 2018 and 2022, Saudi Arabia ranked as the second largest arms importer in the world, with the US supplying the kingdom with 78% of its weapons, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
But Prince Mohammed was not content to escape accountability for Khashoggi’s murder and to resume buying US weapons: he wanted to embarrass Biden and flex his influence over global oil markets. After Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, disrupting global oil markets, the prince seized his opportunity to pressure Biden into becoming a supplicant seeking lower gasoline prices for American consumers.
In July 2022, Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet the prince on his home turf – a triumphant reversal from the initial isolation that followed Khashoggi’s assassination. Biden shared a fist bump with the prince, who seemed to revel in his new role as an international power broker. The White House said Biden had raised Khashoggi’s assassination with the prince during their meeting and had “received commitments with respect to reforms and institutional safeguards in place to guard against any such conduct in the future”.
To show that Prince Mohammed would not bow to Biden’s vague entreaties to respect dissent, Saudi courts soon imposed draconian prison sentences on two Saudi women for their social media posts. Then last October, as the world braced for a surge in fuel prices due to the Ukraine war and sanctions against Russian oil, the Saudi-led Opec Plus cartel decided to cut production by 2m barrels a day – the opposite of what Biden administration officials had pleaded with the Saudis to do.
After the shock of that embarrassing announcement, which threatened to raise gas prices around the US midterm elections, Biden vowed: “There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done.” Yet, a few months later, the US administration quietly dropped any pretense of holding Prince Mohammed and his regime accountable. Biden and his aides resumed business as usual, even though the Saudis had failed to follow through on their longstanding realpolitik bargain with successive US leaders: guaranteeing a steady global supply of oil.
Prince Mohammed not only humiliated Biden but showed that he is in a stronger position today – and has more international suitors looking to curry his favor and win Saudi investments – than five years ago when he ordered Khashoggi’s assassination. Thanks to Trump and Biden, the crown prince evaded accountability for murder and emerged more defiant than ever.
Mohamad Bazzi is director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies and a journalism professor at New York University. He is also a non-resident fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now