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Joe Biden talks to Saudi king ahead of Khashoggi report release

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In a statement about US President Joe Biden and Saudi King Salman’s the conversation on Thursday, the White House did not mention US intelligence findings about the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The release of the report could prove a test for normally close relations between Washington and Riyadh.

What is the report expected to reveal?
It’s thought that the report — a declassified version of a top-secret assessment — may single out the 85-year-old king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying that he approved Khashoggi’s murder.

Washington Post journalist Khashoggi — a critic of the prince’s apparent authoritarian consolidation of power — was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, 2018. Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to 20 years each in prison over the murder.

News media reported that US intelligence agencies concluded in 2018 that the prince likely ordered the killing, although such a finding was never officially released.

What did Biden and King Salman discuss?

Rather than mention the report, the White House said Biden and King Salman had discussed the two countries’ “longstanding partnership.”

It said the US president had welcomed the kingdom’s recent releases of political detainees, including women’s right advocate Loujain al-Hathloul.

The pair also discussed Iran’s “destabilizing activities and its support for terrorist groups” in the Middle East.

The language contrasted with Biden’s pledge as a presidential candidate to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” over the killing.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated power rapidly since his father became king in 2015

Why is the report important?

Recognition of the involvement of the prince would cast a huge shadow over relations between the US and its most significant ally in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia. Relations between the two had flourished under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

Trump was particularly cautious about criticizing Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights, notably over the Khashoggi murder.

Prince Mohammed’s critics — including a rights group founded by the slain journalist — want the US president to back up past tough rhetoric about Saudi Arabia. They want sanctions or other tough actions that would target and isolate the prince.

They fear Biden will simply opt for condemnation, avoiding a lasting standoff with such Saudi Arabia, seen as a valuable strategic partner given its vast oil reserves and regional rivalry with Iran.

Who is Prince Mohammed bin Salman?

Mohammed bin Salman, sometimes dubbed MBS, has consolidated power rapidly since his father, now in his 80s, became king in 2015.

Critics blame the prince for the kingdom’s imprisonment and alleged torture of rights advocates, businesspeople, and other royals domestically.

He is also believed to be behind the launching of a devastating war in neighboring Yemen and a failed economic blockade against neighboring Qatar.

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