(Headline USA) Top Biden administration officials on Tuesday hosted a brother to Saudi Arabia‘s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the highest-level such visit known since the U.S. made public intelligence findings linking the crown prince to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
It marked a surprise reversal from Biden’s campaign-trail promise to make pariahs of Saudi Arabia after then-President Donald Trump was reluctant to get the US involved in the shocking murder at the country’s Turkish embassy.
At the time, Biden said the oil-rich kingdom must “pay the price” for its abuses and promised to “make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
Democrats have been remarkably quiet on the matter since Biden’s administration acknowledged in late February that it would not, in fact, fulfill that promise.
After the release of the U.S. findings on Mohammed bin Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s death, Biden told ABC News there was no precedent for the U.S. punishing a top official of a country with which it has a partnership.
The administration has instead emphasized U.S. strategic interests with Saudi Arabia.
The White House did not publicly disclose the visit by Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister, in advance.
The high-level sessions with Prince Khalid, a younger brother and confidant to Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, renewed complaints that the administration was giving the Saudis a pass in the Khashoggi killing, given that nation’s strategic importance as a Middle East power and a top oil producer.
“US still has their back, no matter how awfully they terrorize their citizens,” Sarah Leah Whitson, who leads the Arab rights group Democracy for the Arab World, tweeted Tuesday in a criticism of Biden administration policy.
Khalid bin Salman met briefly at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a meeting that was not yet made public. The Saudi prince had longer talks at the Pentagon with Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, the official said.
Khalid bin Salman also was talking with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and, on Wednesday, would meet with State Department Undersecretary Victoria Nuland and counselor Derek Chollet, other U.S. officials said. Those officials also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give details about the visit.
At a briefing with reporters Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that meetings were underway and indicated that officials may raise the killing.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the U.S. officials and Saudi prince were “discussing important issues to the bilateral relationship.”
Those subjects were expected to include the war in Yemen, military contracts and Saudi concerns over U.S. efforts to return to a nuclear agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival.
The prince’s official travel to Washington comes as the kingdom’s rulers still keep numerous members of the royal family and peaceful advocates for more rights in detention or, allegedly, under travel bans that often apply to their relatives as well.
“Prince KBS can travel although he is working for the Crown Prince, directly involved in the murder” of Khashoggi, tweeted Lina al Hathloul. She is the sister of Loujain al Hathloul, whom Mohammed bin Salman imprisoned for more than two years following her high-profile campaign for the kingdom to allow women to drive.
State Department spokespeople did not respond to a question Tuesday about why they had not announced the Saudi official’s visit in advance.
They also did not answer whether the Biden administration had concluded Khalid bin Salman played no role in the Saudi organization behind Khashoggi’s killing, or had decided that U.S. interests required Biden officials to meet with senior Saudi royals despite the administration’s public condemnation of the killing.
A State Department spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the administration has made clear that it found Khashoggi’s killing unacceptable. The spokesperson said the U.S. would continue raising human rights concerns at the highest level.
The Saudi government had no immediate public comment on Tuesday’s visit.
Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post who had written critically of Mohammed bin Salman, was killed by Saudi officials in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, who was based in the Washington, D.C. area, had gone to the consulate to get documentation for his upcoming wedding.
The Washington Post reported that Khalid bin Salman had told Khashoggi to go to the consulate to pick up his wedding papers and said it would be safe to do so.
The Biden administration in February released a declassified intelligence report concluding that Mohammed bin Salman, son of the aging King Salman, had authorized the team of Saudi security and intelligence officials that killed Khashoggi.
Khashoggi’s remains have never been found. Turkish intelligence reports say the Saudis immediately carved up the corpse. The Saudi team sent to the consulate included a top-ranking forensics expert known for his rapid dissection of bodies in the field.
As the crown prince’s younger brother, Prince Khalid was the kingdom’s ambassador in Washington at the time of Khashoggi’s killing, but he was recalled soon after amid bipartisan U.S. outrage over the death of the widely known journalist.
When Khashoggi vanished after going to the Saudi consulate in Turkey, Khalid bin Salman insisted for days that accusations of official Saudi involvement in his disappearance were groundless.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press