WASHINGTON – Top Biden administration officials on Tuesday hosted a brother to Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the highest-level such visit known since the U.S. made public intelligence findings linking the crown prince to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Biden administration did not publicly disclose the visit by Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's deputy defense minister, in advance. President Joe Biden had pledged to make a “pariah” of the kingdom's crown prince during his presidential campaign over Khashoggi's killing and other abuses, but his administration has instead emphasized U.S. strategic interests with Saudi Arabia.
The high-level sessions with Prince Khalid, a younger brother and confidant to Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, revived complaints that the administration was giving the Saudis a pass in the Khashoggi killing, given that country's strategic importance as a Middle East power and top oil producer.
“US still has their back, no matter how awfully they terrorize their citizens," Sarah Leah Whitson, who leads the Arab rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now, tweeted Tuesday in a criticism of Biden administration policy.
Biden has pledged a foreign policy that follows human rights and American values. But after the February release of the U.S. findings on Mohammed bin Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s death, Biden told ABC News there was no precedent for the U.S. punishing the acting head of a country with which it has a partnership.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told Prince Khalid in one of Tuesday's meetings about the need to improve human rights in the kingdom, according to a U.S. readout of their talk.
But the two also discussed strategic matters where Saudi Arabia's cooperation is important for Biden administration aims, such as the global economic recovery, where the kingdom is leading a push to step up OPEC pumping and calm rising oil prices. The U.S. also is trying to reassure Saudi Arabia on security matters as the Biden administration seeks to reenter a nuclear deal with Iran, among other issues.
Khalid bin Salman met at the Pentagon with officials including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a meeting that the Pentagon did not detail publicly. Prince Khalid will meet with State Department officials Wednesday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated in a briefing with press that officials might raise the killing of Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who had written critically of Mohammed bin Salman, was killed by Saudi officials in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, who was based in the Washington, D.C., area, had gone to the consulate to get documentation for his upcoming wedding.
The Biden administration in February released a declassified intelligence report concluding that Mohammed bin Salman, son of the aging King Salman, had authorized the team of Saudi security and intelligence officials that killed Khashoggi.
Prince Khalid was the kingdom’s ambassador in Washington at the time of Khashoggi's killing. He was recalled soon after amid bipartisan U.S. outrage over the death of the widely known journalist. When Khashoggi vanished after going to the Saudi consulate in Turkey, Khalid bin Salman insisted for days that accusations of official Saudi involvement in his disappearance were groundless.
The Washington Post reported that it was Prince Khalid who told Khashoggi to go to the consulate in Turkey to pick up his wedding papers and said it would be safe to do so.
The prince’s official travel to Washington comes as the kingdom’s rulers still keep numerous members of the royal family and advocates for more rights in detention or under travel bans that sometimes apply to their relatives as well.
“Prince KBS can travel although he is working for the Crown Prince, directly involved in the murder” of Khashoggi, tweeted Lina al Hathloul on Tuesday. She is the sister of Loujain al Hathloul, whom Mohammed bin Salman imprisoned for more than two years following her high-profile campaign for the kingdom to allow women to drive.
The Saudi government had no immediate public comment on Tuesday’s visit. State Department spokespeople did not respond to a question Tuesday about why they had not announced the Saudi official’s visit in advance.
They also did not answer whether the Biden administration had concluded Khalid bin Salman played no role in the Saudi organization behind Khashoggi’s killing, or had decided that U.S. interests required Biden officials to meet with senior Saudi royals despite the administration’s public condemnation of the killing.
A State Department spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the administration has made clear that it found Khashoggi’s killing unacceptable.
AP reporters Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report. Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City.