On 2 October 2018, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. Within minutes he was murdered and his body dismembered; his remains have never been found. While the last of Riyadh’s many stories portrayed it as a “rogue operation”, the CIA swiftly concluded that the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, approved his killing. But Donald Trump, an admirer of the brash young prince, declared otherwise and declined to act.
Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, vowed that he would make Saudi Arabia “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are”. Now in a position to act on his pledge, he appears to have changed his mind. On Friday, Washington declassified an intelligence assessment on the killing, as promised; the president is also to snub the crown prince, dealing only with King Salman. But while the US declines to say whether Prince Mohammed is included in the “Khashoggi ban” that it has imposed on visas for 76 Saudi officials, the clear message is business as usual, with only minor changes.
The reality is that the crown prince is not only running matters day to day, but is the 35-year-old heir to an old and ailing monarch. He has ruthlessly seen off his rivals; his predecessor as crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, is now detained. While Prince Mohammed’s manoeuvres have increased the tensions and divisions in the royal family, they have also tightened his grip on power. Washington knows it may be dealing with him for decades to come. Mr Biden may not call the crown prince, but his top officials do.
Yet the outcry has come from politicians and the likes of the former CIA director John Brennan, as well as Saudi dissidents, who are angered and frightened. Only weeks ago, one vanished while visiting the embassy in Ottawa, mysteriously reappearing in Saudi Arabia. Agnès Callamard, who investigated Mr Khashoggi’s killing for the UN, described the decision to name the crown prince without sanctioning him as “extremely dangerous” for the message of impunity it sends. Already, business people who distanced themselves from the kingdom after the journalist’s murder are cosying up again.
The US is no longer dependent on Saudi oil as it once was, but sees the country as an essential security partner. Riyadh has made token concessions to the new administration, including releasing the women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul – while still imposing restrictions on her, and keeping others behind bars. For all its vaunted “modernisation”, under Prince Mohammed it has become more repressive at home and more reckless abroad.
The crown prince spearheaded the drive into the war in Yemen that Riyadh is now regretting and struggling to exit. After tens of thousands of airstrikes, and countless destroyed schools, hospitals and homes, the equally merciless Houthi rebels have only gained ground. This is a complex and entrenched civil war in which multiple players, including southern secessionists, have conflicting interests and civilians are an afterthought at best. And while Mr Biden has appointed a new envoy, and declared that the war must end, other priorities loom higher on his agenda.
Nonetheless, the US has finally cut off support for the Saudi-led efforts and sales of offensive weaponry – though since it says it will still sell arms for defensive purposes, the devil will be in the detail. In contrast, the UK has made the repulsive decision to continue to ship arms to Riyadh while slashing aid to Yemen by 50% this year, as the humanitarian catastrophe deepens. As the UN secretary general warned, with millions in desperate need, “cutting aid is a death sentence”.
Britain’s decision is doubly shameful, not only because it is the “penholder” for Yemen at the UN security council, and has done too little to push forward the attempts to seek peace in the country, but because it is a supplier and supporter of the Saudi-led coalition. Mr Biden has been rightly criticised for pulling back on his pledges to punish the Saudis. But Britain looks, as it is, despicable – and increasingly isolated – in its utter disregard for the lives of Yemenis.