Any hopes the Saudi government and the Joe Biden administration may have had of putting the murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi behind them after Friday’s release of the long-awaited US intelligence report into his death are proving to be way off the mark.
Far from placating the kingdom’s critics, the release of the official US assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman “approved” of Khashoggi’s murder has emboldened human rights groups that pushed for the report to be made public in the first place. An array of advocacy organizations are working closely with key lawmakers on efforts to sanction the king-in-waiting and press for deep reforms in the kingdom while also pursuing legal action in US courts.
“It’s very clear that this isn’t going away as a priority,” said Sarah Leah Whitson of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). “This is going to be an ongoing effort to force the Biden administration to do the right thing.”
The Treasury Department slapped sanctions on the crown prince’s security detail and on the former deputy head of the kingdom’s intelligence service on Friday. But the Biden administration said targeting a leader of a US ally was a bridge too far.
“Historically, and even in recent history — Democratic and Republican administrations — there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told CNN on Sunday. “We believe there are more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The report and its aftermath have in turn prompted a furious response from Riyadh. The country is turning to its army of lobbyists and public relations professionals across the United States to counter an international campaign that threatens not just its diplomatic standing but the crown prince’s vision for the country’s economic future as well.
“The crime was committed by a group of individuals that have transgressed all pertinent regulations,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday calling the US assessment “negative, false and unacceptable.” The statement went on to say that the “kingdom’s leadership took the necessary steps to ensure that such a tragedy never takes place again.”
DAWN was Khashoggi’s brainchild but was only formally launched last year by his friends and former colleagues after he was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The organization is one of several working together to advocate for human rights in Saudi Arabia and the broader Middle East; others include Freedom Forward, led by Sunjeev Bery, a former advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, and Freedom Initiative, led by US citizen Mohamed Soltan, a former political prisoner in Egypt.
The groups are working closely with several lawmakers who have called for sanctions against Prince Mohammad following the report’s release.
“We are going to continue to insist that Mohammed bin Salman and his assets be sanctioned,” Whitson said. “What the Biden administration has chosen not to do voluntarily, we believe that members of Congress will make mandatory.”
Congressional allies in the fight include Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and House Foreign Affairs Committee member Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), whose office on Friday notified advocates of her intention to introduce sanctions legislation.
“There must be direct consequences for Mohamed bin Salman and his functionaries,” Omar said in a statement. “In the coming days, I plan to introduce a bill to place sanctions on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in this and other human rights abuses.”
Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, added her own voice on Monday to what she called the “campaign to punish the Crown Prince” in a Twitter statement published in English, Turkish and Arabic.
In a sign that the effort may have wings, at least in the House, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) released his own statement saying he was “reviewing further options” to “ensure everyone, including those at the top, are held fully accountable.”
The campaign goes beyond sanctions.
Advocacy groups are also pressing for the release of more information previously withheld by the Donald Trump administration.
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DAWN notably joined the Open Society Foundation in its freedom of information lawsuit against the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) prior to the report’s release.
“The advocacy efforts that we made to get the [intelligence] report released are really just the first step and the first bit of information that we are demanding from the Biden administration,” Whitson said. “What they’re not going to reveal voluntarily, despite their commitment and promises to transparency, we are going to force them to disclose in a court of law.”
Amrit Singh, an attorney and the director of Accountability, Liberty, and Transparency at Open Society, told Foreign Lobby Report that she hoped the lawsuit helped US Congress mandate the release of the ODNI report. She said her organization will continue to press for the release of CIA’s full report into the killing as well as an audio recording of the killing believed to be in the agency’s possession.
“Transparency is the first step towards accountability,” she said. “The ODNI report is an important first step, but by itself the disclosure of the report is plainly insufficient to hold the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia accountable for the egregious crime that was committed.”
DAWN is also pursuing its own lawsuit against the crown prince and his acolytes along with Cengiz.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has also sued to find what US officials knew and whether they failed in their legal duty to inform Khashoggi, a legal US resident at the time of his death, of any threats against his life. On Jan. 12, the committee’s lawyers from Debevoise & Plimpton asked the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reverse a previous decision that concluded that confirming or denying knowledge of threats against Khashoggi would compromise national security and intelligence information.
Michael De Dora, the committee’s Washington advocacy manager, said that while it could be months before the appeals court makes a decision, the intelligence report’s release is an important first step and will help keep the issue in the public eye.
“There’s tremendous disappointment among organizations and individuals who’ve been advocating for justice in Jamal’s case that Mohammed bin Salman was not sanctioned,” De Dora said. “And I think we’re going to see in the weeks ahead a move on initiatives that would hold Mohammed bin Salman accountable for this crime.”
These include the Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act, introduced by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), which would levy targeted sanctions against officials responsible for “gross human rights violations against journalists.”
“Even as we continue to push for accountability,” De Dora said, “Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has now created new pathways to hold governments accountable for crimes against journalists.”
Meanwhile Soltan’s Freedom Initiative hired Washington lobby firm the American Continental Group in August 2020 to lobby for human rights in Saudi Arabia and the broader Middle East. Lobbyists on the account include the firm’s founder, Shawn Smeallie, who was special assistant for Legislative Affairs under President George H. W. Bush. The firm reported $80,000 for that work in the second half of 2020.
Bethany Alhaidari, the Saudi desk officer for the Freedom Initiative, said one key priority is passage of the Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who represents the district Khashoggi lived in when he was killed. Connolly reintroduced the bill on Friday after the intelligence report’s release. The bill, which passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee last fall, notably calls on the US to ban arms sales to Saudi intelligence, internal security and law enforcement forces until certain human rights conditions and seeks to ensure that Riyadh doesn’t surveil or harass dissidents in the United States.
“That’s a pretty interesting piece of legislation that his office has been working and a lot of organizations are rallying around that,” Alhaidari.
Beyond sanctions, she said advocacy groups are organizing to tackle issues such as Saudi Arabia’s travel bans that she said are used to bar government critics — including US citizens — from leaving the country. To that end Freedom Initiative has partnered with Amnesty International to lead the so-called Freedom First Campaign, which aims to dissuade international technology and entertainment companies from investing in Saudi Arabia, a key goal of Prince Mohammad’s Vision 2030 campaign to move the country’s economy away from its reliance on oil exports.
“I think a big shift people are going onto, next steps, is that we need to start realizing that this is the last remaining absolute theocratic monarchy in the world and we need to shift away from just sanctions, because MBS is just a small part of a larger problem,” Alhaidari said. “People in Saudi Arabia need to be able to speak for themselves.”
To help push back against its critics, the Saudi Embassy has about a dozen and a half lobbying and public relations firms working to make its case. These include Qorvis Communications, which has represented the embassy since 2001 and has about two dozen registered foreign agents on the account, and Hogan Lovells, whose senior counsel former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) offers the Saudis invaluable access to Capitol Hill thanks in part to his chairmanship of the Republican Jewish Coalition. The Saudi government spent almost $18 million on lobbying in 2019, the last year for which complete records are available, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Amid bipartisan blowback in Washington over the past two years, the Saudis have also reached out directly to local officials, media and business leaders in the US heartland via an Iowa-based public affairs company to showcase economic and social reforms in the country. That effort, which coincides with a multi-million-dollar PR campaign to build investor confidence in Prince Mohammad’s futuristic megacity project Neom, is now at risk as Khashoggi’s supporters keep the crown prince squarely in their crosshairs.
“Every positive move … to hold [the Saudis] accountable has been the result of advocacy groups that have been beating the drums on the war in Yemen and the persecution of activists inside Saudi Arabia and outside Saudi Arabia,” Whitson said. “And obviously our work continues to the extent that the United States continues to provide any protection for Mohammed bin Salman and continues to confuse him with the interests of the Saudi people.”
Mikayla Easley contributed to this report.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the American Continental Group lobbies for the Freedom Initiative, not Freedom Forward.