Joe Biden has spoken with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman for the first time as president, ahead of the publication of a US intelligence report expected to implicate the Saudi crown prince in the 2018 murder of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
A White House account of the call did not mention the report, but did say, in another context, that Biden “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law” and that the two discussed working on “mutual issues of concern”.
The Saudi embassy in Washington said the two men “confirmed the strength of bilateral ties and discussed Iran’s malign activities in the region and ways to advance peace in Yemen”.
Biden has been far cooler to Riyadh than Donald Trump, cutting off US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and refusing to talk directly to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a close Trump ally, who US intelligence believes approved and possibly ordered the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi after he was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The CIA gave that assessment in a classified briefing to Congress in 2018 and is due to deliver an unclassified version imminently.
The White House has also strongly suggested that it is preparing to take further actions against those who it deems responsible for the murder. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday that there were areas where the US would “express concerns and leave open the option of accountability”.
It followed remarks by national security adviser Jake Sullivan last week in which he said the administration would present additional actions when the report is released, a remark that was seen by human rights campaigners as opening the door to new possible sanctions against Saudi financial entities, and possibly the crown prince himself.
The call late on Thursday followed two days of anticipation in Washington, after the White House said repeatedly that the two leaders were due to speak “soon”. When the calls failed to materialise on Wednesday and Thursday morning, two sources following the matter told the Guardian that the apparent delay reflected the White House’s difficulty in reaching the king directly. The White House declined to comment.
“Historically, MBS has controlled his father’s switchboard,” said one person with close knowledge of the Saudi royal family.
The White House has made clear that Biden considers the 85-year-old king his counterpart, rather than the crown prince, who runs an increasingly repressive regime in Riyadh. The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, has spoken to Prince Mohammed in his role as defence minister.
The White House version of Thursday’s call to King Salman emphasised the positive aspects of the relationship, saying the president “would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible”.
The two leaders discussed Yemen and efforts to end the war there, and stressed that the US would continue to give military support “to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups”.
The White House account said that Biden “noted positively” the release of political prisoner Loujain al-Hathloul and several Saudi-American activists.