WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden spoke for the first time Thursday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, following weeks of speculation that relations were headed for a deep freeze as Biden has criticized Saudi human rights abuses, canceled arms sales to the kingdom and scheduled the imminent release of a U.S. intelligence report implicating Salman’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A White House statement after the call stepped carefully around the divisive issues, saying the two discussed “renewed diplomatic efforts” to end the war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, where thousands of civilians have died in Saudi air attacks using U.S.-supplied missiles.
Biden “noted positively” the recent release from imprisonment of a handful of political activists and Saudi American citizens, the statement said, “and affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”
“The President told Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible,” it said.
The Saudi Press Agency reported that Salman congratulated Biden on his victory and emphasized the importance of increasing bilateral cooperation. The king, it said, thanked Biden for his commitment to help defend Saudi Arabia against regional threats from Iran and emphasized his country’s desire for a political solution in Yemen.
Neither statement mentioned the crown prince, known as MBS and the de facto ruler of the country under his 85-year-old father, whom the White House had made clear it did not want included on the call.
Biden would speak only with his “appropriate counterpart,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier in the day. She noted that MBS, who serves as Saudi defense minister as well as heir to the throne, spoke last week with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Mohammed is seen as having a mixed record. While allowing social and religious liberalizations that the Biden administration wants to encourage, he has brutally consolidated power and repressed even mild dissent.
But it is the Khashoggi murder and the lack of accountability for it that have drawn the most attention and criticism.
“Our administration is focused on recalibrating the relationship … and certainly there are areas where we will express concerns and leave open the option of accountability,” Psaki said.
Psaki indicated that the call would quickly be followed by the release of the report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on U.S. intelligence findings related to the killing of Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and contributing columnist for The Washington Post who wrote critically of the Saudi monarchy.
Lured to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 to retrieve needed documents, the journalist was drugged and dismembered by Saudi agents lying in wait, according to investigations by the Turkish government and the United Nations. His remains were never found.
A classified CIA assessment soon after his death concluded with high confidence that MBS signed off on the murder.
Mohammed said he took responsibility as the country’s leader, but both he and then-President Donald Trump attributed the killing to “rogue” elements in the Saudi intelligence service acting without high-level approval.
Of 11 Saudi government agents put on trial, eight were convicted, with five given death sentences that were later commuted to 20 years.
Congress ordered the release of the unclassified ODNI summary of U.S. intelligence conclusions in legislation nearly two years ago, but Trump ignored the mandate.
Along with White House adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump cultivated a close relationship with the crown prince and boasted about saving him from congressional scrutiny.
After repeated demands from lawmakers, Trump’s ODNI said last year there was no way to release the mandated information — including names of all those responsible — without revealing intelligence “sources and methods.” Last summer, National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe said that he had determined there was only “a marginal ‘public interest’ argument for this declassification.”
Asked at her confirmation hearing whether she would release the report, Biden’s Intelligence Director Avril Haines said, “We’ll follow the law.”
Release of the document will be accompanied by “our further answer to how we will ensure that there is accountability for that murder,” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told CNN last week.
But although a presidential snub of Mohammed sends a message, it remains unclear whether the administration intends to hold him accountable for the Khashoggi murder in any other way, including sanctions or criminal indictment.
During his presidential campaign, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” with a government that would be made to “pay a price.”
“I would certainly not say his concerns or his views have changed,” Psaki said earlier this week.
But as part of its “recalibration” of relations, the administration must decide where to crack down and where to build relations with a country it considers an important partner on regional issues such as Iran and counterterrorism, and which it is loath to drive into the arms of Russia or China.
Biden has canceled Trump-approved sales of offensive weapons used in the Yemen war and said his administration was reviewing all other potential arms purchases by Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest customer of U.S. defense goods.
In an effort to keep the arms flowing, Trump vetoed bipartisan efforts by lawmakers to stop them and later declared a national security emergency to bypass congressional objections.
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The Washington Post’s Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.