Top U.S., Saudi diplomats discuss human rights ahead of report on Khashoggi killing

Newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses reporters during his first press briefing at the State Department in Washington, January 27, 2021.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the importance of Saudi Arabia making progress on human rights in a call with the foreign minister on Thursday, as the White House scrutinizes relations with the oil-rich kingdom that has been a long-standing U.S. ally.

Blinken’s discussion with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud comes as Washington and Riyadh prepare for the release of a U.S. intelligence assessment that will reportedly implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Blinken also discussed efforts to bolster Saudi defenses, U.S.-Saudi cooperation on ending the war in Yemen, counterterrorism and economic development, according to a State Department readout.

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

The White House is conducting a broad review of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is traditionally close but has come under heightened congressional and international scrutiny in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing and the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Yemen.

President Joe Biden, in his first foreign policy address, announced the end of U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which includes halting relevant arms sales. He has also sought to bring Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest adversary in the Middle East, back to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.

The Biden administration has already downgraded relations with 35-year-old bin Salman, who has been the public face of the Saudi kingdom since becoming crown prince in 2017. The White House has made clear that Biden views the ageing King Salman as his counterpart and will conduct relations through him.

The president is expected to hold his first call with King Salman soon.

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