US President Joe Biden emphasised the need for human rights in his first presidential phone call with Saudi King Salman on Thursday ahead of the release of a US intelligence report into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Neither the Saudi nor the US readout of the call mentioned the report, which is expected to be declassified and released to the public soon, but the US president said earlier in the week that he had read it.
President Biden “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law,” according to the White House readout of a call that came later than other diplomatic calls with world leaders.
In contrast, former US President Donald Trump had called King Salman during his first week in office and his first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia.
But it remains to be seen how the new US administration will react to the findings of the US intelligence report on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was killed in October 2018 after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to collect the documents he needed to get married. The murder sparked international outrage and damaged Saudi Arabia’s international reputation.
The intelligence assessment allegedly finds Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in the murder, according to preliminary reporting from Reuters.
A UN report into the Khashoggi killing previously stated that experts consulted found it “inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the Crown Prince being aware at a minimum”.
Biden spoke with King Salman instead of the Crown Prince who is widely viewed as leading the Kingdom in place of his 85-year-old father.
At a press conference on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there were “a range of actions that are on the table” and that the “administration is focussed on recalibrating the relationship (with Saudi Arabia).”
“Certainly there are areas where we will express concerns and leave open the option of accountability,” she said.
US media reported that although Biden previously said he would treat the country like the “pariah that they are”, it would be more difficult in practice.
Already, Biden has changed tack on support for Saudi Arabia.
In his first major speech on foreign affairs, the newly elected president pledged to end military support for the offensive in Yemen, something neither Trump nor Barack Obama had done.
King Salman “affirmed the Kingdom’s keenness to reach a comprehensive political solution in Yemen and its endeavour to achieve security and development for the Yemeni people,” a Saudi Press Agency readout of the Thursday call said.
Biden committed to help the Saudis protect their territory “as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups”, the White House readout stated.
“The (US) President told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible,” it continued.