Biden grants Saudi Prime Minister immunity from prosecution
By Michael Shellenberger
No American president has ever condemned Saudi Arabia more harshly and consistently than President Joe Biden has. In a 2020 presidential debate, a moderator noted, “The CIA has concluded that the leader of Saudi Arabia directed the murder of US based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi,” and asked Biden if he would punish senior Saudi leaders. “Yes,” said Biden, without hesitation. “We are going to make them pay the price and make them the pariah that they are.” And, last month, in response to Saudi decision to cut oil production, Biden told CNN, “There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done.”
But late Thursday night, the Biden administration quietly gave Saudi Arabia’s Prime Minister, Mohammed bin Salman, immunity from a lawsuit for the murder of Khashoggi, who had criticized the crown prince’s policies in Washington Post columns. Saudi agents in October 2018 killed and dismembered Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. “Jamal died again today,” said Khashoggi’s ex-fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, on Twitter. “We thought maybe there would be a light to justice from #USA. But again, money came first.”
The White House defended the decision as apolitical. “This is a legal determination made by the State Department under longstanding and well-established principles of customary international law,” said a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council. “It has nothing to do with the merits of the case.”
That’s nonsense. “Under Saudi law, it’s very clear that, in fact, the king, in the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia, retains all authority,” noted one expert. “This is not like the United Kingdom where the Prime Minister actually has powers as head of government. I don’t think there would have been much of a stretch under international law to not grant immunity and just to stay silent on the matter.”
It’s clear that the Biden administration intervened in order to appease the Saudis and get them to produce more oil so that the U.S. doesn’t. Shortly before the mid-term elections, Biden made clear that he is deliberately shutting down domestic oil production wherever he can. “No more drilling,” he shouted at a New York campaign rally. “There is no more drilling! I haven’t formed any new drilling.” As such, Biden has put the sectarian demands of US environmental activists ahead of human rights and national security.
Biden repeatedly denounced Trump’s dealings with the Saudis but the Trump administration did not grant a request by Prime Minister bin Salman for immunity after Saad Aljabri, a former senior Saudi counterterrorism officer, named him in a federal lawsuit in August 2020. Aljabri claims that bin Salman sent a hit team to kill him in Canada in 2018.
The Washington Post and others have reported that there was a debate at the highest levels within the Biden administration over whether to grant immunity. “In the end,” Writes David Ignatius of the Post, “as has so often been the case with [Prime Minister] MBS, the Biden administration acceded to the Saudi leader’s desires.” In July, Biden fist-bumped him upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia to urge the nation to produce more oil.
The granting of immunity is sweeping. It doesn’t just undermine the lawsuit, it also shields bin Salman from other legal actions and travel bans.
It is also another reversal in Biden administration policy. The White House hoped Biden’s July trip would result in more oil production, but the Saudis refused to do so and in fact led OPEC+ to cut production a few months later. In retaliation, the White House said it was re-evaluating the relationship with the Saudis and Biden publicly stated that Saudi Arabia would face “consequences.”
But any change to policy would have required that the U.S. produce more of its own oil, which Biden has made clear he does not want to do.
The executive director of the organization that supported the lawsuit, DAWN, called Biden’s decision “shocking” and a “massive concession” to Saudi Arabia. “It’s really beyond ironic that President Biden has basically delivered an assurance of impunity for Mohammed bin Salman, which is the exact opposite of what he promised to do to hold the killers of Jamal Khashoggi accountable.”
Last month, Saudi King Salman made his son, bin Salman, Prime Minister, in a move widely viewed as a strategy that would allow the Biden administration to grant immunity. Dawn’s executive director called it a “ploy.” That’s because, as mere Crown Prince, bin Salman was not entitled to sovereign immunity. He still is not, as prime minister, given that his father remains the country’s ruler. But the Saudis, perhaps in collaboration with the White House, decided that the optics were better if he was prime minister.
When Biden first became president, he refused to engage with then-Prince Mohammed directly, with Biden’s press secretary claiming that, since he was not the King, he was not Biden’s counterpart. But after Biden realized that he needed the Saudis to produce more oil, since he didn’t want to produce more domestically, he changed his view.
“The pariah is now above the law,” said Bruce Riedel, a Brookings fellow and former CIA analyst.
The decision makes clear how refusing to produce more of our own weakens the U.S. in the eyes of the world, both friends and rivals like Russia and China. Prime Minister bin Salman was already becoming closer to both Russia and China and Biden’s decision may embolden him further. Saudi Arabia says China’s President, Xi Jinping, will soon visit, and bin Salman is preparing a broader Asia tour.