Why Biden granted the Saudi prince immunity for a murder
For President Joe Biden, Saudi Arabia is the problem that never goes away. First, he decided to refrain from sanctioning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) following the kidnapping and murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi (the Biden administration imposed travel restrictions out of seventy-six other Saudi officials and sanctioned the elite Saudi intelligence force that carried out the operation).
Then, last November, the White House briefed Congress on its first arms deal with the kingdom, a $650 million missile sale that caused heartburn in some corners of the president’s own party. Then came Biden’s highly controversial visit to the kingdom this summer, escalated after Riyadh pressured OPEC+ less than three months later to cut oil production by 2 million barrels a day.
Now comes another development, again related to the Khashoggi case. More than two years after the journalist’s fiance, Hatice Cengiz, for follow-up Saudi Crown Prince in US District Court for unspecified damages, US killed his case. Because of the principles of Heads of State Immunity, the Department of State said in court, MbS is entitled to protections from suit. While it is true that MbS is not yet king, he nevertheless leads the Saudi government under the tutelage of his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who promoted him to prime minister in September. Chances are the aging monarch did this precisely to protect his favorite son from possible repercussions over the Khashoggi case.
While the judge has the final say on whether to grant the immunity request, the judiciary is extremely deferential to the executive on matters of foreign policy and national security. Indeed, this is not the first time that US district court judges have been called upon to rule on a request for immunity from a foreign head of state or government. When Joseph Kabila, the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was prosecuted for beating a group of activists outside a Washington, D.C. hotel while on a state trip, another U.S. District Court judge threw the caseciting the State Department dispute that Kabila was entitled to diplomatic protection. The official decision has not been made on MBS, but it stands to reason that, like Kabila, the crown prince will not have to worry.
Predictably, the State Department’s request for immunity generated intense backlash, even disgust, in journalism and human rights circles. David Ignatius, columnist at Washington Post and a colleague of the late Khashoggi, wrote that despite promising to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah state, “Biden sadly capitulated to what he saw as a need to mend relations with the man [MbS] who could be the king of Saudi Arabia for decades. Agnès Callamard, who investigated the Khashoggi case during her tenure as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, was more colorful: “Listen, listen, government officials with blood on their hands, generals ordering war crimes, ministers ordering kidnappings and torture, corrupt executives, let it be known, to put you above the law, declare yourself simply Head of State.”
The sensations are more than understandable. There’s something dirty and soulless about a theory that offers presidents, prime ministers and kings more legal protection than the rest of us. Even so, this same theory is universally accepted for the simple reason that countries do not want to see their leaders dragged before foreign courts and held to account for alleged crimes carried out in their name. States rightly fear that allowing such prosecutions of foreign leaders will set a dangerous precedent, exposing their own officials to similar cases, regardless of the merits.
A US State Department spokesman has been at pains to explain that covering up MbS with an immunity blanket should not be interpreted as a reflection of innocence on the part of the crown prince. “This suggestion of immunity…says nothing about the broader policy or the state of the relationship,” the spokesperson said. said.
This is the epitome of a gross understatement. The state of US-Saudi relations falls somewhere between poverty and contempt. Punch aside, Biden and MbS have no personal relationship and exhibit a similar degree of disgust for each other. Saudis view Americans as moralizing braggarts, not to mention impatient amateurs who don’t understand the oil market. Americans see the Saudis as hardcore, authoritative opportunists who assume that when the going gets tough, the American defense establishment will always be at their beck and call. Washington and Riyadh have reached a point in their seven-decade partnership where the central arrangement that holds everything together (security for the kingdom, reliable supply of oil for the global market) is now bogged down by a series of structural geopolitical factors and divergent interests.
If the kingdom decides to stick to its current oil production targets at next month’s OPEC+ meeting, the partnership will crumble even further.
This article was originally published on The viewer‘s UK website.