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US legislators want sanctions on MBS. Will they succeed?

Human rights advocates and legislators are pressuring the Biden administration to do more to punish the crown prince of Saudi Arabia for his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi [File: Sarah Silbiger/Reuters]

US legislators want sanctions on MBS. Will they succeed?

Less than fortnight after the discharge of an unclassified US intelligence report on the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, pressure continues to create in Washington for President Joe Biden to carry Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) accountable.

The widely anticipated report confirmed what many human rights groups, United Nations experts and US lawmakers had long argued: the prince approved the operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But the Biden administration has said it might indirectly sanction or impose a travel ban on MBS; instead, it said it plans to “recalibrate” – but not “rupture” – Washington’s relationship with Riyadh, a longtime strategic ally.

That widely criticised decision has prompted legislative efforts by US lawmakers who want to carry MBS, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, accountable – though whether those attempts are going to be successful remains to be seen.

“The movement in Congress is extremely encouraging,” Raed Jarrar, advocacy director for Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a US-based group founded by Khashoggi, told Al Jazeera. The organisation is looking for direct sanctions on MBS.

“Momentum has been happening for the last few years, pushing for the discharge of the report, and can continue now to carry those names within the report accountable,” he said.

Raft of legislation
Saudi Arabia rejected the US intelligence report, describing its findings as “negative, false and unacceptable”. “The Kingdom rejects any measure that infringes upon its leadership, sovereignty, and therefore the independence of its judiciary ,” the foreign affairs ministry said during a statement.

But in response to the report, the US imposed new travel bans on 76 Saudi nationals, whose names it said wouldn’t be released. It also sanctioned Saudi Arabia’s former deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Assiri, who was involved within the operation to kill Khashoggi, and therefore the Rapid Intervention Force, a unit of the Saudi Royal Guard that falls directly under the crown prince’s control.

“The movement in Congress is extremely encouraging,” Raed Jarrar, advocacy director for Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a US-based group founded by Khashoggi, told Al Jazeera. The organisation is looking for direct sanctions on MBS.

“Momentum has been happening for the last few years, pushing for the discharge of the report, and can continue now to carry those names within the report accountable,” he said.

Raft of legislation
Saudi Arabia rejected the US intelligence report, describing its findings as “negative, false and unacceptable”. “The Kingdom rejects any measure that infringes upon its leadership, sovereignty, and therefore the independence of its judiciary ,” the foreign affairs ministry said during a statement.

But in response to the report, the US imposed new travel bans on 76 Saudi nationals, whose names it said wouldn’t be released. It also sanctioned Saudi Arabia’s former deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Assiri, who was involved within the operation to kill Khashoggi, and therefore the Rapid Intervention Force, a unit of the Saudi Royal Guard that falls directly under the crown prince’s control.

But human rights observers have said they hope international involves accountability – also because the raft of legislation gaining momentum in Congress over the past several days – will spur the Biden administration to vary course.
“It’s important for us to recollect that each minute Mohammed bin Salman escapes punishment may be a moment where the us interests, human rights and therefore the lives of Saudi dissenters are in danger ,” Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who has introduced a bill within the House of Representatives to impose sanctions on MBS, told US broadcaster NPR on Thursday.

In a previous statement, Omar said her legislation “is not without precedent”. “From Iran to Russia, the us regularly sanctions foreign leaders who commit destabilising or violent acts. We must treat the Saudi prince no differently.”

Representative Adam Schiff and Senator Amy Klobuchar – both Democrats – have also renewed their push to pass legislation introduced in February that might require the US to sanction “a foreign person if they commit a gross violation of human rights against a journalist”.

The bill would also restrict aid to governments during which a “senior official” commits human rights violations against a journalist. Schiff has said US repercussions should reach “the prince himself”.

Another bill was introduced on March 1 by Representatives Tom Malinowski, James McGovern, and Andy Kim – all Democrats, also – that might ban “all parties” named within the US intelligence report from travelling to the US.

Democratic Representative David Trone also suggests a resolution that involves the US to prevent arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and to tug back on nuclear cooperation if Riyadh “continues to evade responsibility” for Khashoggi’s death, commit rights abuses, and kill civilians in Yemen.

While no new legislation has been introduced within the Senate since the report’s release, Senator Bob Menendez, the chair for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has said he hopes the Biden administration’s initial response is “only a primary step” which it’ll take concrete measures to carry MBS “personally responsible”.

The general response from Congress has thus far been “forceful”, said Seth Binder, the advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).

“The number of pieces of legislation, the amount of statements that were thrown out there saying this isn’t enough which no individual should be above the law, that felt strong to me,” Binder told Al Jazeera.

“From my conversations with folks on Capitol Hill , it seems this may be a continued effort,” he said. “This isn’t something that they’re getting to abandoning . They’re getting to attempt to erupt these pieces of legislation and send it to the president’s desk.”

 

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