Joe Biden holds first call with Saudi King Salman, 'affirming the importance of human rights'

The White House says Mr Biden "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law" during the call.

US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office

US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office Source: AP

US President Joe Biden held a long-delayed first phone call Thursday with Saudi King Salman ahead of an imminent US intelligence report expected to link the Arab kingdom's powerful crown prince to the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mr Biden kept the king waiting in his long list of calls to US allies after being sworn in five weeks ago.

And when he did finally reach out to the Saudis, it was pointedly to the king and not the expected successor Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS.

The telephone diplomacy was all part of what the White House is calling a reset in relations in the wake of Mr Khashoggi's horrific 2018 murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

A US intelligence report on the incident, in which Mr Khashoggi is believed to have been killed and then chopped into pieces, is being made public "soon," the White House says.

Saudi King Salman gives his opening remarks at a virtual G20 summit hosted in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Saudi King Salman gives his opening remarks at a virtual G20 summit hosted in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. Source: Saudi Royal Palace

It is expected to state that the crown prince in some capacity was connected to the killing, which involved a whole squad of Saudi agents positioned at the consulate before Mr Khashoggi visited.

Mr Khashoggi, a Saudi national who wrote for The Washington Post and was a US resident, had been an outspoken critic of the young prince. 

The White House said that Mr Biden and the 85-year-old king emphasised the countries' security ties and "the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups."

However, in a shift from the Donald Trump era, Mr Biden also "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law."

The Saudi state news agency said in its readout that the king and Mr Biden stressed "the depth of the relationship between the two countries" and discussed Iran's "destabilising activities and its support for terrorist groups" in the region.

Human rights emphasis

Mr Trump paid little attention to Saudi Arabia's human rights violations. His son-in-law and Middle East adviser Jared Kushner became texting friends with 35-year-old Prince Mohammed.

Mr Biden is likely to have his hands tied to some extent, because the reality is that MBS is lined up to take over Saudi Arabia and is already the de facto ruler. Typically, the United States does not impose sanctions on top-level foreign leaders.

With its vast oil reserves and rivalry with Iran, Saudi Arabia is also a vital strategic ally. A reminder of shared US and Saudi interests in the region came Thursday when the US military struck at facilities they said were being used by Iran-backed forces in Syria.

But the intelligence report's publication, which could come as early as Friday, is a sharp departure in tone, reinforcing the administration's policy of calling out Saudi Arabia on rights issues.


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday had his own telephone call with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan.

They "discussed the importance of Saudi progress on human rights, including through legal and judicial reforms," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

Prince Mohammed has said he accepts Saudi Arabia's overall responsibility in Mr Khashoggi's killing but denies a personal link.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World, an advocacy group founded by Mr Khashoggi, said that Mr Biden needed to take more concrete action.

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4 min read
Published 26 February 2021 at 7:52pm
Source: AFP, SBS