The Biden administration declared Thursday that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince should be considered immune from a lawsuit over his role in the killing of a U.S.-based journalist, a turnaround from Joe Biden’s passionate campaign trail denunciations of Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the brutal slaying.
The administration cited the crown prince’s senior position, as he is now Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and recently named prime minister as well, as justification for the decision, which will surely be heavily criticized.
The lawsuit was brought by the fiancée of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and by the rights group Khashoggi founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now.
The request is non-binding and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity. But it is bound to anger human rights activists and many U.S. lawmakers, coming as Saudi Arabia has stepped up imprisonment and other retaliation against peaceful critics at home and abroad and has cut oil production, a move seen as undercutting efforts by the U.S. and its allies to punish Russia for its war against Ukraine.
The State Department on Thursday called the administration’s call to shield the Saudi crown prince from U.S. courts in Khashoggi’s killing “purely a legal determination” and cited what it said was longstanding precedent.
Adding to the ambivalence of the decision, the State Department said in its filing late Thursday, it “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
It added that, “From the earliest days of this Administration, the United States Government has expressed its grave concerns regarding Saudi agents’ responsibility for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder”. Its statement did not mention the crown prince’s own alleged role.
It is well to note that during his election campaign Biden vowed to make a “pariah” out of Saudi rulers over the 2018 killing of Khashoggi and declared that, “I think it was a flat-out murder.”
But Biden as president has sought to ease tensions with the kingdom, including bumping fists with Prince Mohammed on a July trip to the kingdom, as the U.S. works to persuade Saudi Arabia to undo a series of cuts in oil production.
The decision to shield the crown prince from the lawsuit suggests it may be part of a larger and more strategic plan for a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia in order to protect the economic interests of the US.
The head of Democracy for the Arab World Now, Sarah Leah Whitson—who along with Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz, brought the lawsuit against MBS–said in a statement, “It’s beyond ironic that President Biden has single-handedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable.”