Washington: The White House announced sanctions and visa bans on Friday targeting Saudi Arabian citizens over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi but stopped short of imposing sanctions on kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.
The action comes under newly elected US president Joe Biden as his administration appears to aim at fulfilling campaign promises to realign Saudi ties after critics accused his predecessor, Donald Trump, of giving the Arab ally and major oil producer a pass on gross human rights violations.
Biden administration officials say the decisions on sanctions and visa bans will send a clear message about how the United States wants to see the future U.S.-Saudi relationship.
A senior Biden administration official, on condition of anonymity, said the step aims to create a new launching-off point for ties with the kingdom without breaking a core relationship in the Middle East. Relations have been severely strained for years by the war in Yemen and the killing inside a Saudi consulate of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi who wrote critical coulmns of the crown prince’s policies.
Importantly, the decisions appear designed to preserve a working relationship with the crown prince even though U.S. intelligence concluded that he approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.
“The aim is a recalibration (in ties) – not a rupture. That’s because of the important interests that we do share,” the senior White house official said.
On October 2, 2018, the 59-year old Saudi journalist was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and was killed by a team of operatives linked to the crown prince. They then dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.
Meanwhile, Riyadh eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in a “rogue” extradition operation gone wrong, however, it denied any involvement by the crown prince. Five men given the death penalty for the murder had their sentences commuted to 20 years in prison after being forgiven by Khashoggi’s family.
The U.S. Treasury Department placed sanctions on the former deputy Saudi intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Asiri, and announced a sanctions designation on the Saudi Royal Guard’s rapid intervention force, or RIF. The RIF was singled out in the declassified U.S. intelligence report for its role in Khashoggi’s killing.
The US has also announced visa restrictions against 76 Saudi citizens as part of a new policy aimed at nations that carry out activities against journalists and dissidents beyond their borders. Such activities include efforts to suppress, harass, surveil, threaten or harm them. The visa ban will also be selectively applied to family members, officials said.
“As a matter of safety for all within our borders, perpetrators targeting perceived dissidents on behalf of any foreign government should not be permitted to reach American soil,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement.