President Joe Biden spoke with King Salman of Saudi Arabia for the first time on Thursday, ahead of the public release of a highly anticipated declassified US intelligence report on the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The report was expected to implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s killing.
Biden in his conversation with King Salman “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law,” a White House readout of the call said.
But the readout made no mention of Khashoggi or his brutal killing, and it’s unclear if Biden discussed the Saudi journalist’s murder with King Salman. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The fact Biden spoke with King Salman, who is 85 and reportedly in poor health, instead of Prince Mohammed is directly linked to the ongoing fallout over Khashoggi’s killing.
The Saudi crown prince, colloquially known as “MBS,” is the kingdom’s de facto ruler. But as the Biden administration prioritizes recalibrating the US-Saudi relationship, the White House has made a point to state that the president will speak directly to King Salman and not Prince Mohammed.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier this month said that King Salman — not the crown prince — was Biden’s proper “counterpart” in Saudi Arabia. This marked a major diplomatic snub of the crown prince.
That said, Prince Mohammed, who is also the Saudi defense minister, spoke to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week. “That’s the appropriate line of communication,” Psaki told reporters on Wednesday of the conversation between Prince Mohammed and Austin.
Prince Mohammed has been widely accused of orchestrating Khashoggi’s death, which occurred at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Khashoggi was lured to the consulate — where he sought documents to marry his Turkish fiance — killed by agents of the Saudi government, and dismembered. His remains have never been located.
Not long after Khashoggi’s murder, media reports circulated that the CIA concluded Prince Mohammed ordered the killing. A subsequent report from the UN also implicated Prince Mohammed.
Khashoggi’s murder sparked outrage worldwide, and led to bipartisan calls in Washington for the US to reassess its relationship with the Saudis.
Democrats and Republicans alike pushed for the US to end support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where a devastating war has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
During his presidential campaign, Biden signaled that his approach to the dynamic between Riyadh and Washington would represent a drastic shift from Trump’s. Biden in early February announced an end to US support for the Saudis in the Yemen conflict. But his administration has emphasized that the US is still committed to helping the Saudis with its security. The US has long viewed Saudi Arabia as an important buffer against Iran, which both countries view as a threat.
Along these lines, the White House on Thursday said Biden and King Salman “discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups.”
“The President told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible,” the White House added. “The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest.”