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Sarah Leah Whitson on Growing Saudi-China Ties & Holding MBS Responsible for Jamal Khashoggi Murder

StoryDecember 09, 2022
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We speak with Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, about the campaign to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This week a U.S. federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Prince Mohammed filed by DAWN and Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz, ruling that the crown prince has sovereign immunity from prosecution after being named prime minister of Saudi Arabia earlier this year. “We believe, as a matter of law and a matter of fact, this was a fake, manipulative ploy to title-wash himself with a bogus title and bogus powers as head of government,” says Whitson.

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StoryMar 01, 2021U.S. Says Saudi Crown Prince MBS Approved Assassination of Khashoggi, But He Avoids Any Sanctions
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

We end today’s show looking at Saudi Arabia. The Chinese President Xi Jinping met Thursday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the two countries move to increase economic ties. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., a federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The U.S. judge dismissed the suit, citing the Biden administration’s recent granting of sovereign immunity to bin Salman.

On Thursday, Democracy Now!'s Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke with Sarah Leah Whitson of DAWN, Democracy for the Arab World Now. The group was a co-plaintiff with Khashoggi's fiancée in the U.S. lawsuit against the Saudi Arabian crown prince. I began by asking her about what happened to Jamal Khashoggi.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: I think, starting with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, all of the available evidence, including the U.N. special rapporteur’s report and the U.S. government’s own report on the murder, have documented in great detail how Mohammed bin Salman and his agents wooed Jamal Khashoggi from the United States to travel to Istanbul in order to try to obtain a marriage certificate there. This was the pretext to leading him to the consulate, where murderous Saudi agents tortured him and murdered him. Of course, the Saudi government lied about torturing and murdering him in the consulate, until overwhelming evidence, including video and audio recordings, showed exactly what they did to him. The CIA concluded that Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing, based on WhatsApp texts between him and Saud al-Qahtani both before and after the murder, the use of Saudi state planes to transport the murderers, and the overwhelming evidence showing that only he could have ordered this atrocious act.

Our organization, Democracy for the Arab World Now, along with Hatice Cengiz, brought the lawsuit in the United States under the Torture Victims Prevention Act and the Alien Tort Claims Act, as well as state law claims, in order to seek accountability in a civil lawsuit for this murder, and serving Mohammed bin Salman and two of his most senior agents for this murder.

Now, the defendants — Mohammed bin Salman, Qahtani and Assiri — immediately filed a motion to dismiss, seeking that the case be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. But when the court would not rule on that, they turned to the Biden administration to seek intervention in the lawsuit. The Biden administration was not suggesting immunity, just as the Trump administration was not suggesting immunity. And this became a terrible bone of contention between the Saudi government and the Biden administration. The Saudi government kept demanding that MBS receive immunity in this lawsuit, and really just threatened to uphold oil production, as well as not taking calls from President Biden, and, of course, the golden card, not normalizing with Israel until the Biden administration did what they wanted.

When again the Biden administration was not intervening, days before the deadline for them to intervene, after the third delay, the Saudi government issued a royal decree temporarily appointing Mohammed bin Salman as prime minister instead of the king, which is what the basic law of Saudi Arabia provides, in really a last-ditch ploy to secure immunity as head of government. Following this, the Biden administration did intervene in our lawsuit to suggest immunity for Mohammed bin Salman. And as you noted, this is what the judge cited in his decision to dismiss the lawsuit against him. Of course, we believe, as a matter of law and a matter of fact, this was a fake, manipulative ploy to title-wash himself with a bogus title and bogus powers as head of government, when we all know, under Saudi law, the king is the only and absolute authority in the country.

But the Biden administration was hoping that Saudi Arabia would cut — would increase oil production rather than cut oil production. Despite this massive concession by the Biden administration, what did the Saudi government turn around and do? They reaffirmed oil cuts in a very clear punishment for the Biden administration, which was first announced ahead of the midterm elections, of course, in a very transparent effort to hurt the Biden administration and the Democratic Party before the elections.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sarah Leah, just to be clear, once MBS had been named prime minister, even though it’s a nominal position, would it have been possible for the U.S. not to have recognized him in that position, and thereby denied him sovereign immunity, or was that not an option?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, it was absolutely an option not to recognize this immunity ploy, and I think we laid out very strong arguments, both as a matter of law and a matter of fact, that they should not recognize this phony title, this phony effort mere days before the deadline for the administration to weigh in, to come up with a title for Mohammed bin Salman that formally, technically, is a head of government role. They also could have just not weighed in at all. There was no obligation for the Biden administration to say anything. They could have remained mum on the matter if it was just too politically difficult and costly for them to weigh in. But they chose not to do that. They chose to voluntarily respond to the court to suggest immunity for Mohammed bin Salman. What we hoped, at minimum, was that they would just stay silent on the matter.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you’ve said —

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, they didn’t. And I just wanted to read that quote of Biden, when he was running for president, saying, “We were going to … make them pay the price, … make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” So, at this point, has the case been dropped? Where do you go with your lawsuit, yours and Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of the late Khashoggi?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, obviously, as with any district court decision, we have the option to file an appeal to the appellate court, and we are consulting with our lawyers, as well as Hatice, to determine what will make the most sense, because, quite frankly, as a matter of law, when an administration suggests immunity for someone as a head of government or head of state, there’s virtually no willingness on the part of courts to go against that. So, it is a very, very uphill and challenging situation that we’re in.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sarah Leah, now if we could turn to the visit of Chinese President Xi to Saudi Arabia, his meeting today, Thursday, with the crown prince, could you talk about what we know of what’s emerged from those meetings so far, what deals, what agreements have been reached?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Sure. The visit by Xi follows, really, the last several years of deeply intensifying ties — economic ties but also military ties — between Saudi Arabia and China. And this visit was meant to cap that off with the announcement of over $29 billion in deals, in just the first day of Xi’s visits, in a dramatic expansion of Chinese and Saudi ties. The military ties include a factory to build missiles — that was something that was uncovered earlier this year — as well now as efforts to build a Saudi nuclear plant for civil purposes that the Chinese are cooperating with Saudi Arabia on.

You know, this is — as important as this is economically, this is important politically. And as important it is politically, it’s important symbolically, because this is Saudi Arabia sending a very strong and clear message to the U.S., to the Biden administration, that they will seek partners and partnerships with China, that they will support Russia, that they are hedging their bets, that they will not rely on the United States for everything. The only thing they really want the United States for is for military protection. The only thing they need the U.S. to do is to really be a mercenary force, one that’s handsomely rewarded with massive military defense contracts — which was really the main thing that Biden achieved in his own visit to Saudi Arabia in July — but that there is no political loyalty. There is no partnership. There is nothing other than the U.S. serving as security guards for Saudi Arabia.

And I think we all need to reorient our understanding that this is a position that the U.S. government — and not just the Biden administration, but the Trump administration before him and the Obama administration before him — have accepted. They have accepted the terms of their service agreement with Saudi Arabia. And they have no ability to show anything for it in terms of reciprocity from Saudi Arabia for American interests.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sarah Leah, what is the nature of the security guarantees that Saudi Arabia seeks from the U.S.? And security and protection from whom?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, obviously, Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian state that increasingly rules with absolute repression against its own citizens. There are, of course, many decades of terrorist incidents in Saudi Arabia that have threatened the royal monarchy. And I think, first and foremost, it is to protect the absolute monarchy that rules Saudi Arabia and, I think, for decades has done so as a compliant partner for the United States.

What Saudi Arabia has demanded, which is exactly what the UAE has demanded from the U.S. government, are bilateral security agreements with NATO-level protections, which means that any time Saudi Arabia comes under attack, it will be defended by the United States. Of course, there have been a number of very serious Houthi missile strikes on Saudi Arabia across the border for the past eight years, and deeper and deeper into Saudi Arabia, including, of course, the infamous attack on the Abqaiq oil facility, which significantly hampered Saudi oil production for a while.

Now, the Biden administration has refused to give them that bilateral actual defense agreement treaty-level commitments and guarantees. But what the Biden administration did deliver is a security umbrella, is an aerial security umbrella, along with Israel, Bahrain, Jordan, that basically assures that the U.S. will protect Saudi Arabia and a number of other states from any aerial attack defensively. Now, this is not the level of security guarantee that Saudi and UAE want, and this is why they continue to yank on America’s leash.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Sarah Leah, as you’ve pointed out, of course, the situation with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has changed also with respect to the extent of the U.S.’s dependence on Saudi Arabia for oil. Now the U.S. gets very little of its oil from Saudi Arabia, whereas China now gets the majority of its oil from Saudi Arabia. One of the issues that has reportedly been discussed in the talks between Xi and MBS in Saudi Arabia has been the question of whether some Saudi oil sales can be priced in yuan, in Chinese currency, rather than in U.S. dollars. What do we know about what has been discussed on that issue, and what the implications of that would be if Saudi oil could be denominated in Chinese currency and not American currency?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: I think there are two points. First, to the point you noted that the United States no longer depends on Saudi Arabian oil, imports very little Saudi Arabian oil, I think what’s important to understand is that Saudi’s dominant role in OPEC means that it has a massive control over the price of oil globally, because this is set by the markets. And so, even though the United States doesn’t directly import a significant amount of oil from Saudi Arabia, it is dependent on the price of oil, and the dramatically escalating oil prices in the United States are directly linked to what Saudi Arabia decides to do in terms of oil output as part of OPEC. In addition, America is very concerned about oil prices in Europe, and particularly as part of the Ukraine war, so that has made the United States more dependent on Saudi Arabia to increase oil output, to keep the price of oil down globally. So this isn’t just about what oil interests the United States from Saudi Arabia; it’s about Saudi Arabia’s power over the price of oil globally, which is very, very important to the Biden administration.

In terms of the discussions over pegging the price to yuan, this is extremely significant, because it would diminish one of the main levers of control and influence of the United States, to have the price of oil and the exchange of oil cleared in dollars, exchanged and represented in dollars. To the extent that they move off of this dollar system and move to yuan, it’s one more lever of independence from what the United States can do to influence oil prices — and, frankly, just to influence global markets, because first will come oil and repegging oil in nondollar currency, but then will come other assets.

I think everyone should see that the recent cap on Russian oil prices, this artificial made-up price for Russian oil, which is basically a reverse price fixing to what OPEC does in fixing its oil, is something that is not just threatening to Russia but is very, very threatening to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, because they know that if this is something that the U.S. is doing to Russia today, it can turn around and do it to them the next day. And I think, so, what you are going to see is China, Russia and all of the OPEC states increasingly find ways not only to liberate themselves from the dictatorship of the dollar, but also liberate themselves in terms of shipping and insurance, which are the main levers that the U.S. and Europe are going to use to enforce the price limit on Russian oil. And so, in a weird way, an ironic way perhaps, efforts to quash Russian oil production may well boomerang into increased efforts to remove the influence and control on global transactions, on global shipping, on global insurance, that have been used to keep — or, efforts to keep Russia and other countries in line, because Saudi and UAE see whatever the U.S. is doing to Russia, whatever Europe is doing to Russia may well happen to them next, from their yachts, from their properties all over the West, and, of course with the price of oil.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sarah Leah, could you also talk about the increasing cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia on telecommunications, the fact that China has been in discussions on expanding both 5G and 6G telecommunication networks throughout Saudi Arabia, and why that’s raising concerns in the U.S.?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, this is a game of whack-a-mole, because the United States has been trying to prevent countries around the world from signing 5G and 6G deals with China, because it would basically give them a complete market control, but also intelligence and surveillance control over the networks, communication networks, that they install, build and deliver. And, of course, it’s extremely, extremely lucrative, and it’s long-term business investment. So, the United States thought it secured commitments and agreements from Saudi Arabia in July not to develop 5G and 6G with China, and that has not been mentioned as one of the deals that they are announcing. But it is mentioned that it is something that they continue to work on. But, you know, this issue of 5G, 6G, it’s something the U.S. has faced and tried to challenge not just with Saudi Arabia, but even with the United Kingdom as a major bone of contention, and even with Canada. This is really China expanding and growing its ability to deliver the highest technology, but, with that, the highest influence and control over global communication networks. And this is why the United States is really, really concerned about the expansion of Chinese 5G and 6G technologies.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah, I wanted to end with the issue of Yemen. Here in the U.S., over a hundred groups have urged Congress Wednesday to vote for Bernie Sanders’ Yemen War Powers Resolution to end the U.S. backing for Saudi Arabia’s war and blockade in Yemen. Sanders said he now has enough support to pass the resolution on the Senate floor and plans to bring his measure to a floor vote as early as next week.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: This is a very, very welcome development. I wish it wasn’t so close to the next term of Congress, when it will be Republican-dominated, which I think will significantly stymy the ability to get this resolution passed in the House of Representatives, as well. It is something that we’re seeing because of the end of the truce in Yemen and the recommencement of on-the-ground fighting, and extremely long-overdue. As viewers will remember, Congress passed this War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen and end U.S. military transfers for the war in Yemen, intelligence sharing, military protection for Saudi Arabia and UAE in the war in Yemen, but Trump vetoed it.

Now, since we continue to be a participant in that war, providing not just defense protection, intelligence sharing, but of course the military equipment necessary to pursue this war, Senator Sanders is again trying to pass this War Powers Resolution. And because it is in the Senate, he does not need to get through committee in order to do that. It will be interesting to see where the votes line up in this moment of time when the Biden administration has so dramatically capitulated to the Saudi government and really doesn’t want to do anything to upset the Saudi government because of this competition with China, because of its desire to maintain its military and economic influence in Saudi Arabia, whether they will attempt to quash even this War Powers Resolution in the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN.

And that does it for our show. Today, Juan González gives a speech at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies at 3 p.m. He’ll be speaking about 50 years of defending and chronicling America’s workers. On Monday at 6:30, he’ll give an address on Latinos, race and empire at the CUNY Graduate Center. To see his first speech, on reflections of 40 years of fighting for racial and social justice in journalism, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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U.S. Says Saudi Crown Prince MBS Approved Assassination of Khashoggi, But He Avoids Any Sanctions

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