Feb 23, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden will call Saudi king ahead of damning report

Saudi Arabia's King Salman is seen delivering a speech to the United Nations via Zoom.

King Salman speaks during the 2020 U.N. General Assembly. Photo: Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden plans to call Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Wednesday, ahead of the public release of a potentially damning intelligence report about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a source briefed on the call told Axios.

Why it matters: The call, if it happens as scheduled, will be Biden’s first conversation as president with the Saudi king. While they are likely to discuss a range of issues, the conversation will be colored by the imminent release of the explosive report expected to involve one of the monarch's sons.

  • The report, an unclassified document produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for expected release on Thursday, implies Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
  • Bin Salman has denied involvement but accepted responsibility as the kingdom's de facto leader.

Biden is moving to recalibrate the Saudi relationship after the Trump administration made Riyadh's preferences in the Persian Gulf a priority for U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. both withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and failed to take action for the murder of Khashoggi, who was a Washington Post columnist.

  • During the 2020 campaign, Biden accused the crown prince of ordering the murder, stressed he wouldn't sell weapons to the Saudis and promised to "make them the pariah that they are."
  • The Saudi government has recently been sending signals that it's ready to cooperate on the civil war in Yemen and make improvements on human rights in an effort to avoid a crisis with the new administration, Axios' Barak Ravid has reported.

The intrigue: Biden will be speaking with the 85-year-old king, who technically is the head of government, instead of his son, known as MBS, the nation's heir apparent.

  • White House press secretary Jen Psaki previewed the differentiation last week when she said: “The president’s counterpart is King Salman.”
  • “I expect that, in appropriate time, [Biden] would have a conversation with him," referring to King Salman.
  • A spokesperson for the National Security Council would not confirm Biden’s scheduled call Wednesday. The State Department referred an inquiry about the call to the White House.
  • Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with MBS, who is also the country's defense minister, last week.

The big picture: Avril Haines, the nation's top intelligence official, pledged during her Senate confirmation hearing that the Biden administration would release the intelligence report.

  • “Yes, senator. Actually, we’ll follow the law,” she replied to a question about the report's release.
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