Avril Haines (centre), director of national intelligence nominee for US president-elect Joe Biden. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/BLOOMBERG/JOE RAEDLE
Avril Haines (centre), director of national intelligence nominee for US president-elect Joe Biden. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/BLOOMBERG/JOE RAEDLE

Saudi Arabia — Joe Biden’s nominee for national intelligence director has pledged to release a US report on who was responsible for the murder of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, a decision that could embarrass the kingdom’s crown prince and strain its relationship with its key ally.

Avril Haines, who would be the nation’s first woman to oversee US intelligence agencies, made the promise at her confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Congress required the national intelligence director to release an unclassified report to legislators on the killing, but the Trump administration didn’t follow through.

Khashoggi, a Saudi-insider-turned critic who was living in the US, was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018, causing a global outcry. Saudi officials denied the prince played any role, saying the murder was carried out by rogue agents who’ve been prosecuted. US President Donald Trump, citing national interests such as arms deals that he said superseded the killing, expressed support for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

But the case became a persistent pressure point in US Congress, and Biden, who is to be inaugurated as president later on Wednesday, has said he would treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah”.

The report, if critical of the prince, could further strain relations with the US and will be released at a time when he is facing domestic challenges including a faltering economy and discontent within the royal family.

Releasing the report would be “an effort by the Biden administration to bring back human rights issues long neglected by Trump into the pillars of US foreign policy”, said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group consultancy. “I don’t see this as a direct effort to sabotage the US-Saudi relationship but it will certainly create some challenges.”

The prince is also facing two lawsuits in the US that could potentially cause embarrassment, including one related to his alleged role in Khashoggi’s killing.

The outrage sparked by the murder initially threatened to derail the prince’s economic transformation plan to diversify away from oil, spooking foreign investors and damaging the kingdom’s reputation abroad. But the furore gradually faded, and many businessmen who canceled appearances in Saudi Arabia at the time have since returned.

While “much will depend on the details of the report”, Prince Mohammed would be sensitive to any reopening of the Khashoggi files that “shifts the focus away from his investment and modernisation plans”. Kamel said.


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