Two House Democrats are proposing sanctions on Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman in the wake of an intelligence report blaming Saudi Arabia’s young monarch for the assassination of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D–N.J.) has proposed a sanctions package that would ban Saudi officials responsible for Khashoggi’s death from entering U.S. soil, while Rep. Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.) has put forward an even-stronger bill that would impose personal financial penalties on bin Salman, often known by his initials “MBS.”
The crown prince had directly approved the operation to kill and dismember Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, according to an intelligence report declassified by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in late February.
President Joe Biden imposed visa bans on a coterie of unnamed Saudi officials after ordering the release of the ODNI report, and sanctioned deputy Saudi intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri, but is refusing to target the crown prince himself. In fact, Biden never considered sanctioning MBS, according to both CNN and the Washington Post.
This doesn’t appear to be enough for several Democrats in Congress. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D–N.J.) has also called for “concrete measures” against MBS.
All of these proposals “show that Biden’s decision to not sanction Mohammad bin Salman is not a done deal,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, a nonprofit organization founded by Khashoggi.
Omar’s bill — the MBS Must Be Sanctioned Act — would both impose a visa ban on the crown prince and freeze his U.S.-based assets.
The sanctions would be lifted if MBS stands trial for the killing, is otherwise proven innocent, or has “paid an appropriate consequence for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and any other instances of forced disappearance, torture, extrajudicial killing, and other grave human rights abuses, and has credibly committed to not engage in such activities in the future.”
“Every minute the Crown Prince escapes punishment is a moment where U.S. interests, human rights, and the lives of Saudi dissenters are at risk,” Omar said in a statement. “From Iran to Russia, the United States regularly sanctions foreign leaders who commit destabilizing or violent acts. We must treat the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince no differently.”
The bill led by Malinowski — cosponsored by Reps. Jim McGovern (D–Mass.) and Andy Kim (D–N.J.) — does not specifically impose sanctions on MBS. Nor does it include an asset freeze. The bill instead imposes a visa ban on officials named in the declassified intelligence report, which implicitly includes the crown prince.
In this case, the sanctions would not be lifted until Saudi Arabia meets a variety of human rights related conditions, including “significant numerical reductions in individuals detained for peaceful political reasons.”
Malinowski would also require the FBI, Department of State, and ODNI to issue reports on Saudi intimidation and harassment against individuals in the United States every six months. Such behavior could disqualify Saudi Arabia from U.S. weapons sales under older arms control laws.
The bill “reminds the world that in America, no one, whether a president or a prince, is above the law,” Malinowski said in a statement. “I applaud the Biden Administration for naming MBS as Khashoggi’s killer, but it undercuts our message to Saudi Arabia if we accuse him of the crime and then do nothing to hold him accountable.”
Neither bill is proposing broad-based sanctions — the type that have been used against the economies of Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Syria — or sanctions on the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, which was tied to the killing by a Responsible Statecraft investigation.
Khalid Aljabri, a Toronto-based cardiologist whose family has been targeted by the Saudi government, argues that personal consequences for MBS are necessary to deter future crimes.
“The release of the report is [welcome] transparency, but without direct accountability on MBS, he will not change his behavior and the human rights abuses will continue,” Aljabri tells Responsible Statecraft. “Accountability is needed not just because of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but because of the ongoing blatant human rights violations and intimidation of dissidents and perceived enemies inside Saudi and abroad.”
Aljabri says that the Saudi government has been holding his siblings Omar and Sarah “hostage” since their father, former intelligence official Saad Aljabri, fell out of favor with MBS and fled the country in 2017.
Others question whether attempting to change Saudi Arabia’s leadership is an attainable or worthwhile goal.
“MBS is the Saudi state and the Saudi state is MBS,” says Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of the geopolitical risk consultancy Gulf State Analytics, who adds that “perceptions of the U.S. trying to engage in regime change in Riyadh could increase anti-Americanism.”
Cafiero claims that MBS has already paid a steep price, as the crown prince has suffered a “prestige loss” and now “can probably never come” to the United States or Europe.
But Aljabri says that “holding MBS personally accountable and deterring him from future human right abuses will benefit the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the long run.”
Either way, the debate seems unlikely to go away any time soon.
“The failure of the Biden administration to sanction Mohammad bin Salman has really only helped and will help prolong the attention and focus” on accountability for MBS, says Whitson. “The ODNI report is, I think, the beginning and not the end of the information that the Biden administration is going to have to disclose about what the United States knew and when it knew it.”