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Center Scholars on Recalibrating U.S.-Saudi Relations After Khashoggi Report Release

Several of the Belfer Center's Saudi and international relations scholars share their thoughts on how the U.S. should respond following release of a declassified report that places responsibility for the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In the wake of the Khashoggi report, how should the Biden administration recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi relationship?

KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center 

“President Biden is doing the right thing—focusing on the future of Saudi human rights rather than on the past.  But only after doing the wrong thing: threatening to make the Crown Prince a pariah, blaming him for Jamal Khashoggi’s death, refusing to speak to him and then declaring he dare not punish the Crown Prince and risk rupturing U.S.-Saudi relations.   It’s true the U.S. needs partnership with Saudi to combat terrorism and try to thwart Iranian mischief all over the Mideast.  While the prince needs to tolerate, not jail his critics, his social reforms of recent years have provided a breathtaking increase in individual liberty and dignity not only to women but to most all Saudis.”   

RAMI KHOURI, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative 

“The Biden administration's responses to American policy challenges in Saudi Arabia and Iran-in-Syria -- sanctions, military strikes, threats, tough talk -- are unimpressive, repetitive of previous U.S. administrations, and thus likely to fail. If Washington wishes to deter premeditated murder and gross human rights abuses by Middle Eastern regimes it must dramatically show its abhorrence of the Saudi crown prince’s murder and cover-up by implementing the ‘pariah’ option: refuse to engage in any activity that the crown prince or his office initiate. The existing U.S. policy that Biden seems to continue has not stymied tyrants; it has only allowed Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and transnational militants like Al-Qaeda and ISIS to deepen and widen their strategic ties across the region. Terror acts demand counter-terror responses of equal severity.” 

MEGHAN O'SULLIVAN, Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs 

 “The Biden team has taken a number of steps to ensure that the crown prince, known widely as MBS, will pay some price for his role in the murder. The measures may be less dramatic and bold than sanctioning him directly, but they are significant…..  

The gap between American values and American policy toward Saudi Arabia under Trump was a major problem, and the Biden administration is correct to seek to close it. But the remaining question is not so much whether the crown prince will pay any price for his role in Khashoggi’s horrific death. It is more a question of whether the U.S. can continue to advance a complex array of interests in the Middle East after downgrading its relationship with the crown prince, who like it or not is the most important decision-maker in the kingdom and, arguably, the Arab world.” (Excerpt, Bloomberg


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami, Karen Elliott House and Meghan L. O'Sullivan. “Center Scholars on Recalibrating U.S.-Saudi Relations After Khashoggi Report Release.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 4, 2021.