Senior US officials have conveyed to Saudi Arabia that the US is prepared to move forward with a “reset” of the relationship, and effectively move on from the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in order to repair ties with the key Middle East ally, senior US officials tell CNN.
The planning for a reset is a dramatic about-face for President Joe Biden, who came into office vowing to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s murder. His administration also released an intelligence report last year that directly accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of orchestrating Khashoggi’s killing.
But officials say Biden, who is under immense pressure to crack down on Russia and lower domestic gas prices amid inflation that’s rising at the fastest pace since 1981, has set aside his moral outrage to pursue warmer relations with the Kingdom amid the dramatic global upheaval spurred by the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Both sides have decided that for the sake of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East, we need to move past it,” said one senior US official, referring to Khashoggi’s murder. The Saudis, for their part, consider the Khashoggi case closed—and have made that clear to the US, officials said.
That doesn’t mean forgiving and forgetting, the sources noted. Biden, they said, does plan to raise Khashoggi’s murder directly with MBS, as the crown prince is known, when they meet as soon as next month. And some officials inside the administration still believe more should be done to hold MBS accountable for the crime. But the shift is now well underway after months of meetings in Riyadh between two of Biden’s top national security advisers, Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, and Saudi officials, including MBS. And it is already sparking outrage, with Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, accusing Biden of losing his moral compass.
“President Biden’s decision to meet MBS is horribly upsetting to me and supporters of freedom and justice everywhere,” she said in a statement to CNN.
A human rights defender in Washington close to the administration, who was also a close friend of Khashoggi’s, told CNN that he believes moving on and doing nothing more to hold MBS accountable for Khashoggi’s killing will deal a huge blow to the prince’s opposition and Arab dissidents around the world.
“The promise of accountability was the only check on this guy [MBS], now it’s gone,” he said. “When the President of the US goes to this murderer’s hometown to appease him, he’s not only glossing over his past heinous crimes with stunning impunity but enabling his future ones. It’s a wink-wink nudge-nudge to commit the next crime in a cleaner, less messy fashion.”
US officials told CNN that the decision to meet with MBS has been a tough pill to swallow for the President, who said in 2019 that Saudi Arabia had “no redeeming social value.” But they said the countries have agreed that the relationship cannot be held “hostage” by the murder, especially given how dramatically the world has changed since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Among the US’ most important foreign policy goals now is to isolate Russia politically and cut off funding for its war machine by banning Russian oil exports – two objectives that officials believe will be nearly impossible if Saudi Arabia is not on the US’ side, particularly when it comes to increasing oil production to try to stabilize global oil markets. The President and his senior national security advisers therefore believe that to “shun” Saudi Arabia over the murder of Khashoggi would be shortsighted.
The troubling economic trends, particularly when it comes to record high domestic gas prices and soaring inflation, have also come to dominate the priorities of the administration and shunted others aside, said a US official outside the White House.
“I do think the desperation of the trajectory of the global economy is driving everything,” the official said. “They [the White House] are anxious, they are desperate.”
“Their fear, and their anxiety, is making them throw principle out the door,” the official added. “The worst [economic] outcomes on this are really bad and would devastate any hopes the Democrats would have in November.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN en Español on Wednesday that the administration never sought to fully “rupture” US-Saudi relations, even after releasing the report last year that put MBS at the center of Khashoggi’s murder. But he said that the US would continue “to make sure that human rights is fully reflected in our foreign policy.”
Oil prices driving the reset
Biden’s advisers have said openly that the need to increase oil production to stabilize prices is a key driver of the Saudi reset.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday that “there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has to account for what they did with Jamal Khashoggi.” But, she added, “there is also no question that we have to increase global [oil] supply. And OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, is at the head of the pack for that.”
There are of course things the Saudis want in return from the US, including a viable strategy for dealing with Iran – the Kingdom’s biggest regional enemy – as the US struggles to finalize a new nuclear deal. The Saudis also want security commitments, like the continued provision of missile defense systems, officials said.
But White House officials argue that Saudi Arabia has been working with the US in good faith over the last several months, wh