Biden isn’t going to make Saudis a ‘pariah' despite Khashoggi, says foreign policy expert

Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon told CNBC’s “The News with Shepard Smith” that President Joe Biden will not make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” because it would imply cutting off the economic and military relationship that the U.S. has with the Saudis.

“The world economy still needs that Saudi oil even if we don’t need it here in the U.S. per se, and the Saudis need our military protection, and we don’t want them to lose a war against Iran,” O’Hanlon explained during a Thursday evening interview. “We are not going to make the Saudis a pariah nation, if what you hear by that word, as I do, is North Korea or Iran itself or some other extremist government.”

In 2018 NBC News learned that the CIA concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) ordered the hit squad that lured Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, killed him, and cut his body into pieces. In November 2019 Biden promised to make the Saudis “pay” for the killing of Khashoggi during a Democratic debate.

“We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” Biden said. 

O’Hanlon explained that the U.S.-Saudi relationship has endured previous tests, including the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. 

“This is a relationship, after all, that’s gone through 9/11, when we know that the Saudis tolerated the Wahhabi strain of Islam and a preaching approach in many of its mosques that actually motivated a lot of the hijackers and other extremists, but the two sides need each other,” said the foreign policy expert. 

Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Obama-Biden Administration and the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, told “The News with Shepard Smith” that Biden understands that American-Saudi relations are “too important” to lose.

“Biden will work to maintain that bond at the strategic level, with the due respect that an ally of nearly eight decades deserves,” said Rubin. “But it’s also quite likely that he will communicate the types of concerns about Saudi activities in Yemen, on human rights, and the killing of Khashoggi that motivated him to label Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ on the presidential campaign trail.”

The White House confirmed President Joe Biden spoke to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud as it prepares to declassify and release a U.S. intelligence assessment that will reportedly implicate the king’s son, MBS, in the brutal murder of Khashoggi. 

O’Hanlon told host Shepard Smith that Biden’s phone call with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was a form of “symbolic pushback” as opposed to speaking to MBS. He noted, however, due to the king’s age, “the king may not last that long, so he’s going to have to figure out how to still deal with Mohammed bin Salman.”

Rubin warned that it will be very difficult for the U.S. to have direct diplomatic relations with MBS. 

“With the release of the intelligence report about his culpability in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Congress will only increase the pressure – in a bipartisan manner – to block U.S. engagement with him, his assets, and the institutions he controls,” said Rubin. “This is only the beginning of the hard questions, and now that Donald Trump is no longer president, he won’t have anyone in the White House to protect him.”

The former President refused to release the intelligence report and publicly sowed doubt that MBS or the Saudis were involved in Khashoggi’s killing. Trump extolled weapons sales between the two countries. In 2018 he even held up a chart in the Oval Office displaying the billions of dollars in military hardware the Saudi government planned to purchase. 

O’Hanlon told Smith that the “symbolic price” against MBS should be as high as it can be.

“I would try to treat him, personally, like a little bit of a persona non grata,” said O’Hanlon. “He’s a guy who likes to be rubbing elbows in the corridors of power and high economics of finance, and I think we should at least deprive him of that.”

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