A legal case brought against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has stirred controversy after the Biden administration moved to shield the kingdom’s de facto leader from prosecution.
As the sitting head of government, the crown prince should be immune from the suit, the United States said in a late Thursday court filing, just before a deadline for the Justice Department to weigh in. “Mohammed bin Salman, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the sitting head of government and, accordingly, is immune from this suit,” the filing reads.
The decision “was in keeping with long-standing, not only policy but long-standing international law,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. President Joe Biden was aware of the legal process and decision in the case, Kirby added.
“It’s nothing to do with the merits of this case,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Friday. “The United States consistently has afforded head of state immunity to heads of governments.”
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Biden “has been very, very clear and very vocally so about the brutal, barbaric murder of Mr. Khashoggi,” Kirby said.
The crown prince denies the allegations and has sought immunity from prosecution, but his royal position would not legally entitle him to sovereign immunity, which is reserved for heads of state.
The crown prince was elevated to prime minister days before a deadline in the case for a ruling from the Justice Department and the State Department on whether he could be held accountable for the murder. The government’s position is nonbinding, leaving the ultimate decision to the court. The Biden administration did not have to weigh in with an opinion.
Kirby referred to the State Department questions about whether the U.S. consulted with Saudi Arabia in the weeks before the crown prince took the new title. King Salman, the crown prince’s aged father, in September temporarily awarded his title of prime minister to the crown prince, a post usually reserved for the king.
Human rights advocates lashed out at the administration over the decision, charging that it could open the door to future abuses.
“The Biden administration just put the final nail in the coffin for any accountability and opened the gate for [the crown prince] to conduct more Khashoggi-like operations,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, research director for the Gulf at Democracy for the Arab World Now, a group affiliated with Khashoggi, and the son of imprisoned Saudi scholar Salman al Odah.
During an appearance on MSNBC Friday, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius said Biden had gone further than former President Donald Trump in meeting Saudi demands.
“The Trump administration, for all of its embrace of [the crown prince], never gave him the immunity he wanted,” Ignatius said. “He has been seeking immunity since 2020, 2021. The Trump administration left office without acting on that request.”
He added, “It’s disturbing that the Biden administration ends up doing what Donald Trump himself wouldn’t do.”
The Biden administration published an intelligence report in 2021 that claimed the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder and recommended sanctions and travel bans on Saudi officials but did not directly target the crown prince. A request earlier this year by the bipartisan Public Interest Declassification Board advised the president to release the complete report into the journalist’s killing.
Biden has faced criticism for sitting down with the crown prince after promising on the campaign trail to take a hard line against the “pariah” kingdom over Khashoggi’s murder. The president said he confronted the crown prince over the killing during a meeting in Jeddah this summer, angering the royal, according to reports.
During a briefing with reporters this summer, a top Saudi official bristled at the suggestion that the crown prince could face legal liability in the U.S. over the killing and questioned the findings by U.S. intelligence.
“Sometimes assessments are not accurate. We saw what happened to the assessment of Saddam Hussein having nuclear weapons,” said Adel al Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs. “When Oliver North was sending money, raising money, and giving it to the contras, did Ronald Reagan know about it? No.”
The relationship has grown increasingly tense in recent months with clashes over energy policy.
Following a decision by OPEC+ to cut oil production, Biden promised to unleash “consequences” against the kingdom, and the White House said it was conducting a review of U.S.-Saudi ties. It had urged the kingdom to increase oil production to ward off the threat of higher gas prices heading into the winter months.
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At a meeting of G-20 leaders this week, Biden attended a social luncheon that included the crown prince.
Kirby said Friday that the review, which Biden believes is “warranted and necessary,” is now underway.
“We want to make sure that whatever this bilateral relationship looks like going forward, it’s in our best interest,” Kirby told reporters on Friday. No timeline has been announced.