WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden and Saudi King Salman held a long-awaited first phone call Thursday, stressing the enduring strength of ties ahead of a potentially explosive intelligence report on the murder of a Washington Post journalist.
The phone call was seen as the final precursor to the release of the report on the grisly killing in 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi national who had been an outspoken critic of Salman’s expected successor Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
If, as expected, the report directly implicates Prince Mohammed in Khashoggi’s murder, it will cast a huge shadow over relations between the United States and its most significant ally in the Arab world which had flourished under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump.
In their phone call, Biden and the 85-year-old king discussed “the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups,” according to a statement from the White House.
However, the US president also “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law” in the call which came more than five weeks after Biden was sworn in and long after he had spoken with a host of other world leaders.
The official Saudi news agency said that the king and Biden had both stressed “the depth of the relationship between the two countries” and discussed Iran’s “destabilizing activities and its support for terrorist groups” in the region.
The report’s release, which is expected to come as early as Friday, is a sharp departure from the policies of former president Trump, who hailed his close friendship with Saudi Arabia and whose son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, became texting friends with 35-year-old Prince Mohammed.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday had his own telephone call with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan and “discussed the importance of Saudi progress on human rights, including through legal and judicial reforms,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Prince Mohammed, who is considered the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia due to the king’s fragile health, has said he accepts Saudi Arabia’s overall responsibility in Khashoggi’s killing but denies a personal link.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World, an advocacy group founded by Khashoggi, said that Biden needed to take action beyond sending the report to Congress.
“President Biden should now fulfill his promise to hold MBS accountable for this murder by, at minimum, imposing the same sanctions on him as those imposed on his underlying culprits and ending the weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia that would be controlled by an unelected, brutal murderer,” she said.
Five people were handed death sentences over the murder of Khashoggi who was killed and dismembered in 2018 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
But a Saudi court in September overturned them while giving jail terms of up to 20 years to eight unnamed defendants following secretive legal proceedings.
Human rights advocates called the judicial process a whitewash aimed at blaming the hitmen while not touching the mastermind.
CNN, quoting documents filed in a Canadian civil lawsuit, reported that two private jets used by the squad that allegedly flew to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi were owned by a company earlier seized by Prince Mohammed.
A respected veteran journalist and editor, Khashoggi was in self-exile and resident in the United States, writing articles critical of the crown prince when he was assassinated on October 2, 2018
The 59-year-old writer had been told by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States to go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul if he wanted to obtain documents for his forthcoming marriage.
There he was killed and his body dismembered by a team sent from Riyadh under the direction of Prince Muhammed’s top security aide, Saud al-Qahtani.