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Holding Saudi Arabia accountable

Following President Joe Biden’s non-congressionally approved bombing of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Syria, the administration’s foreign policy fails to produce effective countermeasures against the most life-threatening elements of the Saudi Arabian monarchy.

Making waves after its Feb. 28 release, a U.S. intelligence report definitively linked the murder of prominent dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. While residing in northern Virginia, the 59-year-old Saudi-born journalist wrote columns for the Washington Post criticizing the Saudi Monarchy. Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered on Oct. 2, 2018, during a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Suspicions over the Crown Prince’s involvement were widespread among U.S. officials, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). After a CIA briefing on the situation in December 2018, Graham said, “I think he (Muhammad bin Salman) is complicit in the murder of Khashoggi in the highest possible level.”

The most recent report by the Office of National Intelligence said, “We assess that Saudia Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill” the Saudi journalist. Rather than sanctioning Saudi Arabia, which has long maintained a reputation of executing human-rights violations, the White House stands by its airstrike in Syria on Thursday, Feb. 25, which the Pentagon called “proportionate” and “defensive.” Making a noteworthy appearance on CNN, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki boldly claimed, “Historically, and even in recent history, Democratic and Republican administrations, there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations—and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations.”

Psaki’s statement is not only absurdly false, as all three of Biden’s 21st-century predecessors imposed direct sanctions on foreign leaders, but it illuminates the administration’s contradictory Middle Eastern foreign policy. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights “confirms that the US attacks have left 22 members of ‘Sayed Al-Shuhadda’ and the other Iranian-backed militiamen dead.” Campaigning as the necessary end to former President Trump’s “dangerous blank check” to Saudi Arabia, Biden’s failure to effectively hold the Crown Prince responsible is indicative of what is amounting to be nothing more than a vacuous campaign promise. 

Furthermore, the president is proving himself all the more different from his predecessor by entertaining the possibility of ceasing withdrawal of U.S. troops in the Middle East and maintaining the current military presence. The Press Secretary’s statements also risk establishing an undeniably reckless precedent where the U.S. openly stands by countries regularly committing gross violations of human rights so long as they remain a faithful ally to Uncle Sam.

The recently revealed U.S. Intelligence highlights that the Saudi-team ordered to kill Khashoggi, included, “officials who worked for or were associated with the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs.” Despite this Saudi propaganda factory’s tireless efforts to boost the Crown Prince’s public image in the Western media, and silence his dissidents, the center has been represented by the major lobbying and law firm, Squire Patton Boggs. Since the firm began representing the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs in 2016, their business dealings have reportedly generated $2.7 million, according to Mother Jones.

Squire Patton Boggs, and two dozen other lobbying, law and public relations firms still remain on the country’s payroll, despite other firms’ abrupt departures in the wake of Khashoggi’s suspicious 2018 murder. According to the same article from Mother Jones, Squire Patton Boggs and three other major Saudi lobbying firms, such as Democratic-oriented Podesta Group and SGR and the Republican-run BGR Group, “Reported hundreds of lobbying contracts with the US government. The majority were aimed at influencing Congress.” 

Currently, Squire Patton Boggs is the only firm on the Saudis’ payroll. Even though Boggs has not reported any new lobbying contracts since 2017, it persists in profiting from representing an entity which U.S. Intelligence claims was directly involved in Khashoggi’s murder. Not only do these findings necessitate serious reforms to the current lobbying system, which is arguably the most corrosive area of American politics, but they also warrant an overdue re-evaluation of U.S.-Saudi relations.

Israel serves as the too frequently unspoken accomplice in Khashoggi’s murder. The software company, NSO Group, is licensed by the Israeli government to sell its Pegasus spyware to foreign governments. The Saudis did not possess this technology, yet were found using it to surveil Khashoggi in the time leading up to his murder. The same company found itself mixed up in numerous hacks from recent years, including a 2019 hack of Whatsapp where according to the Financial Times, “hackers installed sophisticated NSO spyware on an unknown number of phones.” Another incident worth mentioning is the hacking of Jeff Bezos’s phone, which a U.N. report from 2020 directly attributed to Muhammad bin Salaman.

U.S. relations and level of involvement in Middle Eastern affairs must change before any real progress can be achieved. The importance of setting a proper example to the world and holding the Saudi prince accountable cannot be overstated. Failing to accomplish this paints a bleak picture of future U.S.-China relations, as tensions escalate over human-rights abuses, predatory acquisitions and the Asian power’s emergence as a legitimate economic and authoritarian threat to the West.

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