In implicating the Saudi crown prince in a journalist’s killing but opting not to punish him personally, the Biden administration is hoping to remake relations with a key U.S. Middle East ally without shattering them, U.S. officials said.
Whether Mr. Biden can strike that balance should become clearer in the months ahead, when the administration seeks to deal with Saudi Arabia on energy, counterterrorism, civil war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen—and their mutual adversary in Iran.
The White House on Friday cleared the release of a long-delayed intelligence report that determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s day-to-day leader, ordered the operation that led to journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death in 2018.
Following the release, the U.S. Treasury and State departments slapped sanctions and travel bans on a number of Saudi security officials. But none of the penalties will hit Prince Mohammed directly, nor has the U.S. threatened broader measures such as trade restrictions or a lessening of support in Saudi Arabia’s proxy conflict with Iran. A senior administration official said the U.S. is eager to avoid a rupture of relations, but “we’ve also made clear that this administration will not sweep anything under the rug.”
While the report contained few details of Prince Mohammed’s alleged role, and its bottom-line conclusion was long known, analysts said the public censure of the prince, and by extension the Saudi state, was extraordinary.
In a sharp departure from former President Donald Trump’s policies, Mr. Biden has pressed Riyadh on human rights issues in his first weeks in office and, as part of a policy recalibration, he has said he would conduct relations through King Salman, rather than his son, Prince Mohammed.
The difficulty in that approach, analysts say, is that the prince largely runs the kingdom, including its defense and security services, and is in line to become king upon the death of his father, who is 85 and has had health problems.
“The reality is that he is the de facto leader of the Kingdom,” said Simon Henderson, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. To bypass the prince on key issues would be impossible, he said.
Disappointing some of Saudi Arabia’s harshest American critics, Mr. Biden and his national security team opted not to place sanctions directly on Prince Mohammed for his role in Mr. Khashoggi’s death, which would have risked a complete breakdown in U.S.-Saudi ties.
“I’d like the administration to go farther,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. “I think there need to be repercussions attached to the crown prince. He has blood on his hands.”
Mr. Biden, he said, should neither speak to nor meet with Prince Mohammed, and should sanction any assets he controls in the Saudi Public Investment Fund that are linked to the Khashoggi operation.
Mr. Schiff (D., Calif.), who repeatedly urged the report’s release, said he would press Mr. Biden to do more to hold Prince Mohammed accountable. It is a mistake, he said, to sanction those accused of carrying out the plot “but not the guy who ordered it to be done.”
Levying sanctions on Prince Mohammed, who is the grandson of the kingdom’s founder, likely would have reverberated across Saudi Arabia, where his economic and social reforms are popular with young Saudis, and put him in a small group of foreign leaders who have been sanctioned by the U.S. They are all adversaries, and include North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Riyadh rejected the U.S. intelligence report, which was written during Mr. Trump’s tenure and released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Saudi Arabia said it “completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment” in the four-page document. “The report contained inaccurate information and conclusions,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The Saudi statement added that the kingdom rejects “any measure that infringes upon its leadership, sovereignty, and the independence of its judiciary system.” But it affirmed Saudi Arabia’s “robust and enduring partnership” with the U.S.
A senior Saudi adviser said the Riyadh government believes the Biden administration has more information than it chose to release in the intelligence report. “They told us they have more than speculation and theories and they had intercepted materials,” the adviser said. “Even if they did not, we know Turkey gave them materials.”
The declassified ODNI report found that Prince Mohammed ordered the operation “to capture or kill” Mr. Khashoggi, who had been critical of him and was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, killed and dismembered.
Avril Haines, Mr. Biden’s Director of National Intelligence, said in an interview with National Public Radio that U.S.-Saudi relations will be “challenging” going forward. The fact that Prince Mohammed was determined to have ordered the operation “is not going to make things easier. But I think it’s also fair to say that it is not unexpected. And I hope we are able to continue to do work where it makes sense for us to do work and to continue to communicate as we have,” she said.
While not sanctioning the crown prince, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned a onetime close aide, former Saudi deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri, as well as the Rapid Intervention Force, which reports to Prince Mohammed and, U.S. officials said, whose members were involved in the Khashoggi killing.
Mr. Trump had already sanctioned 17 Saudi individuals in the killing, including another top aide to the crown prince, Saud al-Qahtani.
Also Friday, the State Department announced it was imposing visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals it said were involved in threatening dissidents overseas, including Mr. Khashoggi, under a new world-wide policy aimed at such acts, which it called the “Khashoggi ban.”
Between the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, and the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen that has caused thousands of civilian casualties, Washington has seen a bipartisan cooling on Saudi Arabia in recent years.
While the Biden administration values the 75-year strategic partnership with the oil-rich kingdom, “the reality here in the United States and in Washington is that the Saudis have just lost both political parties [and the] support of the American people,” a senior U.S. official said.
In Saudi Arabia, how much ties with Washington are affected “comes down I think to the character of MBS,” as the crown prince is known, said Mr. Henderson of the Washington Institute. Will the prince, he asked, get angry, resentful, seek revenge?
On Twitter, Saudi journalists close to the government and other surrogates sought to dismiss the highly anticipated report as repetitive.
Ali Shihabi, who sits on the board of a big development project overseen by the crown prince and formerly ran a pro-Saudi think tank in Washington, said the report contains nothing that hasn’t been said before and no smoking gun. “This thin ‘report’ is actually evidence that no hard proof exists against MbS,” he tweeted. “No proof that instructions were given to commit murder.”
—Summer Said contributed to this article.
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