On April 8th, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that 16 Saudis, including one of the closest aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were being barred from entry to the United States under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 2019. The full list of individuals can be seen here.
The move was made in response to continued criticism about the lack of accountability for the individuals involved in the Jamal Khashoggi case and it reflects a shift in the Secretary of State’s attitudes on the issue. In January, Secretary Pompeo met with Saudi officials and focused on the internal Saudi investigative and judicial processes as a source of accountability. However, despite this shifting stance, it is still not clear if this new move is a genuine and effective push for justice or simply a political ploy to lessen criticism of the Trump Administration’s policies towards Saudi Arabia.
The confirmation of the new US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia on April 10th provides some insight into long-term US intentions towards Saudi Arabia. The Senate voted overwhelmingly to confirm the appointment of retired four-star general, John Abizaid, the first US ambassador to the Kingdom since 2016. General Abizaid collaborated extensively with the Saudi military during his time as the Central Command chief from 2003 to 2007, working first with Saudi military commanders at the height of the Iraq War and then with those same commanders and other officials as executive assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
During his confirmation hearing, Abizaid discussed the Khashoggi murder as a short-term problem that requires a forceful discussion. He has previously pointed to the Saudi internal reform plan Vision 2030 as evidence that Saudi Arabia can be a long-term, moderate partner within the Middle East, despite concerns regarding the actions of the Crown Prince. Although the Senate and House of Representatives have both passed resolutions that would end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, an important rebuke of Riyadh, Abizaid has repeatedly said that it is important for support to continue, making it clear that his calls for justice in the case of the Khashoggi murder do not exceed his and the Administration’s support for the Saudi regime.
General Abizaid’s attitudes towards the Kingdom, combined with evidence that the US recently provided authorization for the sharing of nuclear technology and expertise with Saudi Arabia, makes it highly likely that the US will remain committed to a strong bilateral partnership, despite symbolic actions like the banning of individuals connected to the Khashoggi murder. The case itself will remain an important part of the US-Saudi dynamic, though, as the domestic trial of those involved in Khashoggi’s murder continues within the Kingdom. Amid allegations that Khashoggi’s family has accepted blood money from the Saudi government, Salah Khashoggi, Jamal’s son, has affirmed that the trial will continue and that those responsible will be brought to justice. Absent a strong American push for accountability, it will likely fall entirely on the Saudi legal system to seek out justice for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Evan Schleicher is the Editorial Intern for the International Enforcement Law Reporter. He is currently an MA candidate in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University, focusing on transnational security and humanitarian issues.