War Stories

Why Biden Couldn’t Punish the Prince

He’s already been tougher on the Saudis than any other president, but there are some lines that can’t be crossed.

MBS seated in the Oval
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a meeting with then-President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018. Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images

It would be satisfying to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the torture and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It would be satisfying, for that matter, to cut off all ties with Saudi Arabia, a tyrannical kingdom that’s inimical to our values and that we don’t even need for its oil supply anymore.

It was, therefore, disheartening when President Joe Biden took neither of those actions, even after his director of national intelligence released a report last Friday—an unclassified summary of a much larger examination—concluding that MBS (as the prince is often called) “approved an operation” to “capture or kill” Khashoggi and that he wields total control over the elite guard that carried out the crime.

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But faced with reality, Biden had little choice but to stop short of penalizing the prince personally. First, doing so would have had little effect. Second, it would have enmeshed the U.S. more deeply in the Middle East’s byzantine local politics, when we should be disentangling ourselves. Finally, what Biden has done, in response to the intelligence report and to other Saudi crimes, is more punitive than any actions that any American president has ever taken against the royal family—and more consequential than a personal slap at the crown prince would have been.

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Biden stopped sending Saudi Arabia offensive weapons that it had been using to kill Houthi rebels in Yemen. He halted the delivery of all weapons—worth billions of dollars—that Saudi Arabia has bought from the United States for whatever purpose, including self-defense, pending a review, not just of each arms sale but of the entire U.S.-Saudi relationship. Until now, the Saudis have had pretty much carte blanche to whatever U.S. arms they want, short of nukes. Biden also banned 76 Saudi officials who were involved in the Khashoggi killing, as well as their families, from traveling to the United States. And he imposed other sanctions, including the seizure of assets, on the Saudi deputy of intelligence.

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This is all remarkable, and not just for its contrast with President Donald Trump, who refused to wag even a finger at any Saudis and who blocked the release of a CIA report on Khashoggi’s murder. Every previous president has treated Saudi officials with kid gloves, mainly for the bounty of their gushing oil wells.

Still, should the crown prince at least have had his U.S.-based assets frozen? According to the Washington Post, Biden and his aides considered taking that step, but they found it impossible to separate the prince’s assets from the assets of the Saudi state, since the two are roughly identical.

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Besides the practical matters, it is worth noting just how unusual, perhaps unprecedented, sanctioning MBS himself would have been. The same intelligence agencies that found the crown prince guilty of approving Khashoggi’s murder also concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally interfered in our 2016 election and poisoned several of his critics on foreign territory, including most recently Alexei Navalny. Various U.S. presidents—including, this week, Biden—have levied sanctions on the Russian government and on specific Russian officials. However, they have stopped short of sanctioning Putin himself.

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There is a reason for this. In general, the United States doesn’t sanction the heads of state of sovereign nations with which it has diplomatic relations. This is true of most other countries as well. It’s a principle with roots going back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

What would have happened if Biden had sanctioned the crown prince? Some argue that the prince’s father, the 85-year-old Saudi king, would have been put on notice that, contrary to his long-standing plans, he simply cannot make MBS his successor—or else risk cutting off all relations with the kingdom’s chief ally and benefactor, the United States.

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This is extremely implausible. It is true, as is often said these days, that the Saudis need us more than we need the Saudis, but they don’t need us that much. They’d rather not go seeking primary ties elsewhere, but they could, and they would, if need be. The king is not going to push MBS aside for a few reasons—not least because MBS is, in effect, already in charge, and he has been for a while.

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During the Obama presidency, I heard stories, since confirmed, of two senior U.S. officials, on two separate occasions, meeting with King Salman in his palace office. While talking, the king gazed at a picture frame on his desk. Off in a corner, the crown prince sat at a desk, diligently typing on a computer. The officials soon realized what was going on: MBS was typing out what the king should say; the picture frame was, in fact, a computer screen, and the king was reading aloud the script by the crown prince.

That’s the situation, and Biden, who no doubt knows these stories, must have kept it in mind when weighing his options.

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If Saudi Arabia were completely unimportant, none of this would matter. This presumptuous prince killed a journalist who, though a Saudi citizen, was a U.S. resident who worked for an American newspaper, the Washington Post. To hell with the prince. Biden, or any other president, would at least have to consider that Saudi Arabia is still a key bulwark against Iranian expansion, a key buffer for Israeli security, a key player in the world oil markets (even if the U.S. is energy-independent), a key sharer of regional intelligence, and a key air base. If geopolitics change to the point where these things aren’t important, or if an American president decides they’re no longer important, then, again, to hell with the prince.

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To hell with the prince, to some extent, anyway. Whatever else Biden has and hasn’t done, he has clearly downgraded the status of Saudi Arabia in Washington’s book of priorities—something that, again, no previous president has done. It’s a huge overstatement to claim, as some of Biden’s critics do, that his failure to sanction MBS tells the royal family and tyrants elsewhere that they can get away with anything.

Meanwhile, since Biden took office, the Saudi government has agreed to lift its blockade on humanitarian assistance in Yemen; it has released two Saudi Americans who had been in detention; and it has freed Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi feminist dissident who had been in jail since 2018. Maybe, now that Biden has said he will continue to engage with the real Saudi leader, the leader will respond. Maybe.

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None of this is a done deal. Both the crown prince and the new American president will be carefully watched, by each other and by the rest of the world, not least their own constituents. We’ll see whether the Saudis cooperate, as they say they will, with Tim Lenderking, the U.S. emissary Biden is sending to end the war in Yemen. We’ll see if anything happens to other Saudi dissidents who are known to be in MBS’ sights—and we’ll see what Biden does if they end up badly. We’ll see what happens to that blocked pipeline of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia—whether some of the weapons are cut off for good, as a sign of a genuine “repositioning” of our relationship, or whether they smoothly flow after a decent interval. We’ll see what happens when Biden holds an international summit on one problem or another—whether MBS gets treated a bit more casually than usual, if he’s invited at all, or whether the hugs and cheek kisses resume.

Biden has said human rights will be in the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. Like most presidents who say such things at the start of the term, he has now realized—as he’s actually known for a long time—that sometimes they have to be pushed back a little bit. We’ll see if they get pushed back too far.

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