In spring 2018, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street, and major universities rolled out a red carpet for nearly three weeks to welcome Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the United States.
During his trip, MBS met with Oprah Winfrey, Rupert Murdoch, Sergey Brin, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates, among many others. The New York Times described the US tour as “seeking to change the perception of Saudi Arabia from an opaque and conservative kingdom, where mosques promote extremist ideology and women are relegated to second-class status, to a modernist desert oasis.”
But while MBS was the face of that effort, an enormous sovereign wealth fund — the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, or PIF — with about $400 billion in assets and expected to grow to $2 trillion, was the real draw for many of the tech, finance, and entertainment elites seeking photos and meetings with the 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne.
Six months later, two planes owned by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund flew a team of assassins from Riyadh to Istanbul, where they murdered Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate. The planes then flew the kill team back to Saudi Arabia.
At least one of those planes was operating inside the US as recently as October.
The role of PIF assets in the murder was made public in court documents filed in Canada as part of an embezzlement lawsuit brought by a number of Saudi-state owned companies against Saad Aljabri, a former top Saudi Intelligence official, who is currently in exile and previously claimed in a lawsuit filed in DC District Court that MBS attempted to send a kill team to murder him shortly after Khashoggi’s assassination.
Canadian court filings, first reported by CNN and later acquired and reviewed by Responsible Statecraft and Insider, reveal that Sky Prime Aviation was transferred to PIF on December 22, 2017. Two Gulfstream jets owned by Sky Prime Aviation shuttled Khashoggi’s assassins in and out of Istanbul less than one year after the transfer of Sky Prime Aviation to PIF.
“TOP SECRET NOT FOR CIRCULATION AND VERY URGENT” reads the top of the document that detailed the transfer of a group of companies, including Sky Prime Aviation, to the PIF.
The document directs:
According to the instruction of His Highness the Crown Prince, Chairman of the Supreme Committee for Public Corruption Cases, to transfer the ownership of all companies referred to in my aforementioned letter to the ownership of the Public Investment Fund, immediately approve the completion of the necessary procedures for this.
“Given the central role of the crown prince in terms of controlling Saudi Arabian assets and the government writ large, there needs to be an international independent investigation to identify what state assets were used in this gruesome murder,” said Kate Kizer, policy director for advocacy group Win Without War.
The release of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report last week, which concluded that MBS approved of the operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi, led to the implementation of Magnitsky Act sanctions against a former Saudi intelligence chief and members of the group who participated in the murder.
But ultimately the Biden administration chose not to sanction or otherwise penalize MBS directly, despite the ODNI’s assessment that he approved of the operation leading to Khashoggi’s death.
“It’s a violation of Biden’s campaign promise hold the murderers of Khashoggi accountable,” said Michael Eisner, general counsel for Democracy in the Arab World Now, a group founded by Khashoggi shortly before his murder.
“We now know who ordered the murder, and he will not face the same consequences as his foot soldiers,” said Eisner. “That goes against a basic principle of justice that the person who orders a murder should face no less a severe punishment than the foot soldiers who carried it out.”
The Magnitsky Act can have far-reaching implications.
The Treasury Department describes it as being implemented “in recognition that the prevalence of human rights abuse and corruption that have their source, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States, had reached such scope and gravity as to threaten the stability of international political and economic systems.”
“The United States seeks to impose tangible and significant consequences on those who commit serious human rights abuse or engage in corruption, as well as to protect the financial system of the United States from abuse by these same persons,” the Treasury says.
“The Biden administration should apply US Global Magnitsky Act sanctions and travel bans on senior executives at the PIF based on the use of PIF planes to move Jamal Khashoggi’s Saudi assassins between Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” said Sunjeev Bery, executive director of advocacy group Freedom Forward. “It’s ridiculous that on one hand the PIF is providing travel support for Khashoggi’s assassins while at the same time doing business deals with Uber and other companies in Silicon Valley.”
While the role of PIF assets wasn’t mentioned in the ODNI report or the sanctions announcement, MBS’s role as chairman of PIF and the use of PIF assets — the two Gulfstream jets — raises questions about the fund’s involvement in the assassination and the knowledge of other PIF executives about the operation to kidnap or kill Khashoggi.
PIF did not respond to a request for comment about the role its planes played in the murder and about what, if any, knowledge or involvement PIF had in approving or operating the flights to Istanbul.
PIF’s status as a heavily courted investor no doubt generates considerable incentives for authorities to keep discussion about the fund’s role in the killing as quiet as possible. Funds like PIF can purchase stock in any publicly traded company, and two weeks ago, PIF increased its investment in US stock to nearly $12.8 billion. The fund holds a $1.38 billion stake in Activision Blizzard, $3.7 billion in Uber, $1.06 billion in Electronic Arts, $923 million in Live Nation, and $1.1 billion in Carnival Cruise Lines.
Sky Prime Aviation, for its part, has taken measures to limit publicly accessible data about the ongoing flight activities of the airplanes used in the operation that killed Khashoggi. But, much like MBS and the PIF, their operations inside the US appear to continue without any meaningful limitations or consequences stemming from the killing.
RadarBox, a system that tracks flight data, shows one of the Gulfstream jets that was used to fly the kill team to Turkey in 2018 flying inside the US as recently as late last year. On October 13, the Gulfstream IV with tail number HZ-SK1 departed Boston and flew to Fort Lauderdale, arriving in the late afternoon. It was the same plane that ferried the second group of assassins from Riyadh to Istanbul.