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Feature Article
2021-07-09

From Washington to Paris: Changing Times or Business as Usual?

As the Kingdom's deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is entertained in Washington, another royal is under fire in France for allegedly enslaving his maids, bringing to mind the notorious affair of Princess Hussa bint Salman, the sister of Khalid, who was accused of threatening to murder a contractor working at her Paris apartment. With talk of a "fundamental" transformation of Saudi society, it is an open question whether real change is afoot, or whether it is a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

In a welcome unprecedented for a deputy defense minister from any country, Khalid, the brother of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) was given the red-carpet treatment by the Biden administration during his July 6 visit, meeting with top American diplomatic, military and security officials, even though the trip, unusually, was not announced beforehand. He is the first senior royal and highest ranking Saudi to visit the US since President Biden took office in January (reportedly, Washington has thus far rebuffed a request by King Salman to allow the crown prince into the country), and met with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley, and other senior officials. His trip, however, drew criticism from rights groups and anti-war advocates.

His visit comes on the heels of a declassified report prepared by the CIA and released on February 26 which assigned responsibility to MbS for having sanctioned the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in 2018. As a presidential candidate in 2020, Biden had denounced the assassination and pledged to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" state, in contrast to the fawning behavior of his predecessor in office, who did his best to deflect blame from the crown prince. Following the intelligence report, the Americans put more than 70 Saudi nationals on a no-travel list and imposed financial sanctions on officials who were directly involved, although MbS (and his brother Khalid) faced no consequences themselves. Indeed, Biden declared that his objective was to "recalibrate and not rupture" the US-Saudi relation; many were disappointed that MbS, despite personal involvement, had made it through the episode unscathed, while sales of American military hardware continued, leaving the impression that pragmatic considerations outweighed the administration's professed stance on human rights.

The Americans argue that the emphasis on maintaining a working relationship justifies the attempt to thread the needle with an appropriate response to the spy report implicating MbS. Cooperation is needed on a wide range of issues, from persuading the Saudis to open a Yemeni sea and airport (allowing access for humanitarian supplies), to using the Kingdom's economic and diplomatic muscle to work towards common regional goals, and in particular revisiting the Iranian nuclear deal, all of which fit within the broader rubric of American policy initiatives. Still, the optics were jarring: Khalid was in fact the Saudi ambassador to the US between 2017 and 2019, during the assassination and its aftermath, and seems to have been personally involved in the matter himself. A 2018 phone call has been uncovered in which Khalid provides the pretext for Khashoggi's trip to the consulate, where a team of assassins was waiting, telling him he should go to Istanbul to collect his marriage papers, and assuring him it would safe to do so. At the time, however, Khalid condemned "malicious leaks and grim rumors" and fervently denied Saudi involvement, even pledging to help with finding the "missing" journalist and critic of government policy. This position soon became untenable; once officials at home were forced to admit Khashoggi had never made it out of the consulate alive, the story was changed to one of "rogue" agents acting without authorization. Khalid quietly slipped out of the country, replaced as ambassador by Rima bint Bandar, daughter of the well-known Bandar bin Sultan and a more palatable choice under the circumstances.

Although MbS serves as Defense Minister, his presence in Washington would have been even more awkward than his brother's, so Khalid can be seen as a proxy for the unwelcome crown prince. Consequently, there was little fanfare, and only bland press releases after the meetings, mostly reiterating the identical points with little mention of human rights.

Related articles: The Changing Shape Of Royal Family Politics: Old Rivalries Revisited?
Rebranding the Kingdom: Illusion or Reality?
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