IT WAS hardly a fitting epitaph for one of the Arab world’s best-known journalists—three pages of dry, bureaucratic prose that revealed nothing new. On February 26th America released an intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by the Saudi government in October 2018. The report should have been published two years earlier, but was blocked by the administration of Donald Trump, in a brazen effort to shield Saudi Arabia from the consequences.
By the time the CIA assessment finally emerged it was an anticlimax, its conclusions already known: America believes Muhammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s crown prince and de facto ruler, approved the operation to capture or kill Mr Khashoggi. The consequences were underwhelming as well. America announced sanctions, including asset freezes, on a Saudi official, Ahmed al-Asiri, who was implicated in the murder plot; it also imposed visa bans on scores of Saudis accused of targeting dissidents. There were no sanctions for the crown prince, who has previously denied ordering the killing, just the promise of a difficult relationship with President Joe Biden.
Mr Khashoggi’s murder captured the world’s attention as few crimes do. In part that was because of his stature as a veteran journalist, a man acquainted with almost everyone who worked on the Middle East, among them diplomats, journalists and analysts. And the details of the crime were grisly. He entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul seeking paperwork for his upcoming wedding and never emerged. For days the Saudis insisted they knew nothing of his whereabouts. In fact he was murdered inside the consulate, suffocated and his body sawn into pieces by a squad of assassins flown in on private jets. One member of the team even played the role of body double, dressing in Mr Khashoggi’s clothes and walking past surveillance cameras on Istanbul’s streets to make it appear that he had departed safely.
This has all been public knowledge since 2018. The CIA quickly assigned blame to Prince Muhammad, and that conclusion leaked out. Turkey, a rival of Saudi Arabia, eagerly fed details of its own investigation to journalists. The newly-released American report, issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, adds no new information. It offers no hard evidence of Prince Muhammad’s culpability, for example. Instead it cites circumstantial details such as his control of the Saudi security apparatus and the involvement of a close adviser. “It [is] highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the crown prince’s authorisation,” the report concludes.
Perhaps America’s spies know more than they let on. What they released was only a redacted version of a classified report. For Mr Trump, though, even that was too much to reveal. Prince Muhammad enjoyed a close relationship with his administration, particularly with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser. In 2019 Congress passed a law that required him to issue an unclassified version which could be made public. Mr Trump ignored it. Bob Woodward, a Washington Post journalist, said the president later bragged about shielding the prince: “I saved his ass,” Mr Trump reportedly said. “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone.”
Mr Biden, who as candidate called Saudi Arabia a pariah, seems determined to end the embrace. Aside from releasing the report, he has pointedly refused to call the crown prince. Aides explain this as a simple matter of protocol. “The president’s counterpart is King Salman,” said Jen Psaki, the press secretary (the two men spoke on February 25th). The task of calling Prince Muhammad, who is also the Saudi defence minister, instead fell to Lloyd Austin, America’s defence secretary. The protocol argument is not wrong—but were Mr Biden so inclined, it would hardly be beneath his station to speak with the crown prince of a longtime American partner.
Mr Biden’s silence, and his alacrity in releasing the report, speaks to America’s exasperation with Prince Muhammad. The list of grievances is long. There is the war in Yemen, now in its seventh year, a strategic failure and a humanitarian disaster. On February 4th Mr Biden announced that America would end its military support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting there. Many Democrats are also angry about the kingdom’s sweeping crackdown on critics. Mr Khashoggi’s case attracted the most attention, but authorities have targeted everyone from conservative clerics to women’s-rights activists. (A Saudi court released Loujain al-Hathloul, a well-known activist, on February 10th, though she remains under a travel ban and other restrictions.)
The crown prince’s defenders do not dispute that he has been ruthless. Instead they argue that he has no choice. Since 1953 Saudi Arabia has been ruled by the ageing sons of the late King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern state. Prince Muhammad’s elevation is a long-overdue shift from gerontocracy. But he has powerful enemies in the kingdom, from lesser royals jealous of his rise to a once-untouchable clergy he has tried to diminish. Many would be happy to see him pulled away from the throne.
As critics go, though, Mr Khashoggi was a mild one, a member of the Saudi establishment who wanted reform rather than revolution. Ms Hathloul agitated for the right to drive, a right that was later granted to Saudi women. Just 35 years old, the crown prince has cemented a reputation as a vicious, impulsive ruler. The CIA report appears to confirm that view. Apart from keeping him at a distance, though, Mr Biden has not yet decided how to deal with him—a question that may vex many American presidents to come.