Biden emphasizes human rights in an interview with the Saudi king earlier than the report on the Khashoggi assassination is printed

Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia

Bandar Algaloud | Saudi Royal Council | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

President Joe Biden made his first call to Saudi King Salman on Thursday, underscoring human rights and diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen as the White House reviews relations with the oil-rich kingdom.

Noting the recent release from prison of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and several Saudi activists, Biden “reiterated the importance the United States attaches to universal human rights and the rule of law” in the White House.

Biden’s discussion with Salman comes as Washington and Riyadh prepare to publish a US intelligence review that reportedly implicates the king’s son, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Saudi citizen who worked as a columnist for the Washington Post, was killed and his body dismembered in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Riyadh initially denied any involvement in the murder, but later blamed Khashoggi’s death for a rogue operation.

State Secretary Antony Blinken also spoke to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saudi on Thursday, highlighting the importance of Saudi progress on human rights.

The decision by the Biden administration to release the intelligence service’s assessment of who was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, which the Trump administration opposed, signals a shift in US-Saudi Arabia relations.

The White House has already downgraded relationships with 35-year-old bin Salman, who has been the public face of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since his appointment as Crown Prince in 2017. The government has made it clear that Biden views the aging King Salman as his counterpart and will conduct relationships through him.

Bin Salman had access to high-level US officials during the Trump administration through his personal relationships with members of President Donald Trump’s family, particularly Jared Kushner.

The White House is conducting a comprehensive review of US relations with Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally been close but has been subjected to heightened scrutiny by Congress and international scrutiny following Khashoggi’s assassination and the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Yemen.

In his first foreign policy address, Biden announced the end of US support for the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen, which includes the cessation of arms sales. He has also tried to bring Iran, Saudi Arabia’s greatest adversary in the Middle East, back to the negotiating table on its nuclear program.

Biden also discussed the US’s “commitment to assist Saudi Arabia in defending its territory when exposed to attacks by Iranian-oriented groups”. Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched rocket attacks against Saudi Arabia. Washington and Riyadh accuse Iran of supporting the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia had to cut half of its oil production in September 2019 after a series of drone strikes on its crude oil facilities. The Houthis took responsibility for these attacks. Riyadh blamed Iran, which denied any involvement.

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