US President, Saudi King, has a phone call ahead of the expected publication of the Khashoggi report
By Jarrett Renshaw and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US President Joe Biden told Saudi King Salman on Thursday that he would work “as vigorously and transparently as possible” for bilateral relations, the White House said ahead of the expected release of a sensitive US intelligence report on the murder in 2018 by the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The report is a declassified version of a top-secret assessment, according to sources, honoring the 85-year-old king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for authorizing the murder of Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
Saudi Arabia denies that the 35-year-old Crown Prince, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, consented to the murder.
Biden and Salman discussed regional security and other issues, and the new US president told the Saudi monarch that “he will work to make bilateral relations as strong and transparent as possible,” the White House said.
“The two leaders have reaffirmed the historic nature of the relationship,” the White House said in a statement. No mention was made of the Khashoggi report, a test of decades of close ties between the allies trying to work together against growing Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Biden later told reporters the call, her first since taking office last month, was “good”.
A statement from the Saudi news agency also sounded positive. Salman congratulated Biden on assuming the US presidency, stressing that the couple emphasized “the depth” of the bilateral relationship and the “importance of strengthening the partnership”.
The statement, which also did not mention the Khashoggi report, said that the heads of state and government had the “destabilizing” regional activities of Iran, the “US obligation to defend” Saudi Arabia “against such threats” and Biden’s pledge not to allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons is reviewing weapons. “
A person familiar with the problem told Reuters that the report was pending the call. The release has also been delayed because the crown prince had surgery earlier this week, the person said.
Khashoggi, who wrote columns for the Washington Post criticizing the Crown Prince’s policies, had been based in the United States.
The release of the declassified report of his death is part of Biden’s re-calibration of US-Saudi Arabia relations, in part over Khashoggi’s murder.
But Biden has said he wants to maintain close ties with one of Washington’s closest Arab allies.
“Our administration is focused on recalibrating the relationship,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in an earlier briefing. “And certainly there are areas where we raise concerns and leave open the possibility of accountability.”
“There are also areas where we will continue to work with Saudi Arabia in light of the threats in the region,” she added in an obvious reference to Saudi Arabia’s main competitor and US enemy, Iran.
Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi mission to Istanbul on October 2, 2018, and killed by a team of Saudi activists linked to the Crown Prince. They dismembered his body, which was never found.
Saudi Arabia called Khashoggi’s death a “rogue” extradition operation that went wrong, but denied the Crown Prince was involved.
Five people were convicted of murder and given the death penalty in a 2019 trial. However, their sentences were commuted to 20 years in prison after Khashoggi’s family forgave them. Three other people were sentenced to a total of 24 years in prison.
State Secretary Antony Blinken held a phone call with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al Saud on Thursday and “discussed the importance of Saudi progress on human rights,” the State Department said.
They also discussed “joint efforts to strengthen” the Saudi defense and working together to end the war in Yemen, where a Saudi Arabia-led coalition supports the government against the Iranian-centric Houthi movement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price said .