As Biden reviews US-Saudi relations, pressure rises to remake ties over Khashoggi killing, Yemen war

A new film seeks to raise the issue of the columnist's murder by Saudi agents.

January 28, 2021, 8:04 AM

During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden had harsh words for Saudi Arabia, one of the United States' key partners in the Middle East who his predecessor Donald Trump warmly embraced.

"I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are," Biden said in 2019, calling for accountability for the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

But with the U.S.-Saudi partnership considered critical to U.S. national security interests in the region, it's an open question whether Biden, whose decades in the Senate and at the White House have given him high-level contacts in the kingdom, will follow through on that promise.

A group of Democratic lawmakers hope to put pressure on the Biden administration to do just that. At the same time, a human rights group and the new documentary film it helped fund is targeting Saudi Arabia and those with close ties to the kingdom, including investment banks like Goldman Sachs, defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, and regional allies like the United Arab Emirates.

PHOTO: A general manager of Alarab TV, Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, Dec. 15, 2014.
A general manager of Alarab TV, Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, Dec. 15, 2014.
Mohammed Al-shaikh/AFP via Getty Images

"For far too long, it (the U.S.-Saudi relationship) has been based entirely on security and money with not a single care for morals. It's short-sighted and ultimately fails," said Thor Halvorssen, founder and CEO of the Human Rights Foundation, a splashy non-profit that promotes human rights and hosts the Oslo Freedom Forum. "A moral foreign policy must prioritize not establishing a protection racket for a psycopathic murderer."

HRF deployed projections around Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night, targeting the Saudi embassy and cultural center with messages about Khashoggi's killing and the group's new film, "The Dissident." In aggressive messages, the group calls Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a "murderer" for allegedly ordering a hit team to lure the vocal critic to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and murdering and dismembering him.

The Saudi government has denied responsibility for Khashoggi's death and said the crown prince was not involved, blaming instead a team of, what it has called, rogue government agents. In September, a Saudi court convicted eight unnamed Saudis out of the 15-man team, in a trial that was widely criticized for a lack of transparency.

According to several U.S. lawmakers, MBS, as the crown prince is sometimes colloquially known, was involved and deserves ultimate responsibility. Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur for on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, made a similar assessment in June 2019, issuing a report that called it "inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the Crown Prince being aware, at a minimum."

In their letter to Biden's Secretary of State Antony Blinken, 10 top Democratic lawmakers urged the administration to undertake a wider reevaluation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, including by releasing an unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence community's assessment of the Khashoggi murder -- something Biden's Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines promised to do during her Senate confirmation hearing.

"President Biden will undoubtedly face pressure from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to forget this pledge. We hope you will nonetheless make it clear that the burden for maintaining a positive relationship cannot fall entirely on the United States. The Saudi government must show greater respect for American concerns about the treatment of our citizens and residents, the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and fundamental human rights," wrote Reps. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee; Adam Smith, D-Wash., chair of the Armed Services Committee; Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chair of the intelligence committee; James McGovern, D-Mass.; Tom Malinowski, D-N.J.; Ted Deutch, D-Fla.; Dean Phillips, D-Minn.; Gerald Connolly, D-Va.; Ted Lieu, D-Calif.; and Colin Allred, D-Texas.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump shows off posters as he talks with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House, March 20, 2018.
President Donald Trump shows off posters as he talks with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House, March 20, 2018.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

Their letter also called on Biden to demand the release of U.S. citizens detained by the Saudi government, immediately reverse the foreign terrorist organization designation on the Houthi rebels in Yemen who are fighting a Saudi-led coalition backing the Yemeni government and freeze the "delivery of offensive weapons" to the Saudis for that war.

Hours after the letter was sent Wednesday, Blinken said reviewing the Houthi designation was his most "urgent" priority at the agency because of the potential humanitarian impact and announced a pause on some U.S. arms transfers. While he downplayed the issue as "typical" of any transition as the new administration reviews existing sales, it could mean the administration will ultimately rescind some of them.

"We have real concerns about some of the policies that our Saudi partners have pursued and accordingly, the president-elect has said that we will review the entirety of the relationship to make sure that as it stands, it is advancing the interests and is respectful of the values that we bring to that partnership," Blinken said last week during his confirmation hearing. The State Department did not respond to questions about a possible review.

But the pause of arms transfers may be having some real-world effects already. In its quarterly earnings statement Tuesday, the defense contractor Raytheon said the firm had removed its $149 million sale of a "precision-guided munition" for a "certain Middle East customer ... as we determined that it is no longer probable that we will be able to obtain such approvals."

In the face of four years of pressure, including from Republican lawmakers, Trump stood by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, using his veto to protect U.S. arms sales and maintain support for their coalition in Yemen. At times, he called Khashoggi's murder "horrible," but ultimately he defended Saudi Arabia as a critical partner, especially against Iran and its regional aggression -- reportedly even bragging to journalist and author Bob Woodward that he "saved (Prince Mohammed's) a**" from U.S. pressure.

Over two years later, Trump appears to be right, as international financial executives return to the kingdom this week. The Future Investment Initiative Institute, a Saudi financial forum known as "Davos in the Desert," started Wednesday with more than 140 speakers, including Goldman Sachs chief David Solomon, Credit Suisse CEO Thomas Gottstein and Ray Dalio, the billionaire co-chair of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates. Real estate investor and Trump associate Tom Barrack, former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci and Trump's former Mideast negotiator Jason Greenblatt are also attending.

PHOTO: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal welcomes Vice President Joe Biden at the Riyadh airbase, Oct. 27, 2011.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal welcomes Vice President Joe Biden at the Riyadh airbase, Oct. 27, 2011, upon his arrival in the Saudi capital with an official delegation to offer condolences to the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz following the death of his brother, Crown Prince Sultan.
AFP via Getty Images

Human Rights Foundation targeted its messaging at some of those institutions too, projecting similar messages in New York Sunday at Goldman Sachs's and KPMG's offices and in Washington Wednesday at Trump International Hotel and Lockheed Martin's offices.

The projections flashed between MBS and Khashoggi's faces and the words, "They silenced Jamal. They won't silence this film," "Jamal Khashoggi murdered by MBS" and "Uncover the truth behind the crime" -- promoting the new documentary "The Dissident" by Oscar-winning detail Bryan Fogel, who tells the story of his murder with grisly detail. Received with rave reviews at Sundance film festival, it didn't receive a distributor, but was released online.

"Whether they realize this or not, the corporations and individuals who engage with and profit from the Saudi regime are whitewashing the crimes of MBS and his government," Halvorssen said, adding HRF sent letters to several CEOs asking them to boycott the FIII summit.

A spokesperson for KPMG declined to comment, while Goldman Sachs and Lockheed Martin did not respond to ABC News about their ties to Saudi Arabia.

In addition to businesses, the HRF team targeted the Saudi and Emirati embassies in Washington and the Saudi cultural center in Virginia.

While Blinken has already made some moves that put the Saudis on notice, he noted Wednesday the kingdom is a "partner" -- avoiding Biden's word choice of "pariah." Even if the administration rescinds some arms sales, pushes for a negotiated settlement to the war in Yemen or speaks up on human rights in Saudi Arabia, it seems unlikely that partnership will largely change.

In fact, the Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that it has been testing the use of two more airfields and one Red Sea port in Saudi Arabia amid high tensions with Iran, according to the commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie, who reportedly said, "We're just exploring possibilities here, nothing more than that and we're working closely with our Saudi hosts," according to DefenseOne.

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