Saudi Arabia just imprisoned an aid worker for running an anti-government Twitter page. His sister says it shows MBS is testing Biden’s pledge to be tough on the kingdom.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan.

  • A Saudi terror court sentenced aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years in prison on Tuesday.
  • His sister says it shows Biden’s plan to punish Saudi Arabia for rights abuses is having little effect.
  • Saudi Arabia freed several activists in the face of US pressure, but continues to prosecute others.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday sentenced an aid worker to 20 years in prison for running a Twitter account that he used to mock Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known also as MBS – and his government.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, was seized by Saudi secret police in March 2018 at the offices of the Saudi Red Crescent, an aid agency where he worked in Riyadh. He was sentenced by a specialist Saudi terror court but the specific charges remain undisclosed.

He also faces a 20-year travel ban after imprisonment.

His sister, Areej al-Sadhan, a US citizen who works in the Bay Area tech industry, told Insider that her brother’s sentencing is a clear sign that MBS is testing President Joe Biden’s promise to bring the Saudi leadership to heel over human-rights abuses.

In the two years leading up to his election, Biden talked tough on Saudi Arabia, promising in late 2019 to make the country’s leaders “the pariah they are” for silencing opposition and violating human rights.

But Areej al-Sadhan told Insider her brother’s sentence shows Saudi Arabia has no intention of letting the US dictate its internal affairs.

“Clearly the Saudis are testing President Biden’s commitment to the human rights first approach in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

“It just shows that the Saudi government are not serious about improving human rights at all.”

MBS Biden
A composite image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Joe Biden.

Insider contacted the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, and the Saudi Center for International Communication for comment.

Areej al-Sadhan went on to call on Biden and his administration to act.

“I ask President Biden to look at this seriously. We seriously need his help with human-rights activists, and to stand up for human rights as he promised. Just dismissing those abuses will lead to more abuses,” she told Insider.

‘They are feeling emboldened’

She added that Saudi Arabia is feeling untouchable because of the Biden administration’s failure to punish those responsible for the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident who often criticized the Saudi government.

The Biden administration in February released a US intelligence report that said that MBS approved the hit on Khashoggi, but did not include the crown prince on a list of 76 Saudi officials sanctioned over the murder.

“Without consequences to Khashoggi’s murder, they are feeling emboldened to commit more human-rights abuses,” she said.

mohammed bin salman mbs
Crown Prince Mohammed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 20, 2019.

Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have yet to comment on al-Sadhan’s sentence, but, on Tuesday, the US State Department expressed concern.

“As we have said to Saudi officials at all levels, freedom of expression should never be a punishable offense,” spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also released a statement slamming the kingdom’s treatment of al-Sadhan, saying: “The brutal sentencing of humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, which follows his years-long disappearance and imprisonment without trial, is a grave and appalling injustice.”

“Riyadh needs to know that the world is watching its disturbing actions and that we will hold it accountable,” she added.

How al-Sadhan got caught

The exposure of al-Sadhan’s Twitter account is thought to be linked to a 2016 Twitter hack conducted by two Saudi spies employed by Twitter in San Francisco.

The hack saw Saudi authorities unmask scores of accounts that had been critical of the crown prince and Saudi state.

One dissident who had his account hacked, the Gulf analyst Ali al-Ahmed, previously told Insider the breach led to several of his contacts in Saudi Arabia being disappeared. He is suing Twitter for damages.

Ali al-Ahmed
Saudi scholar Ali al-Ahmed seen in Washington, DC, in 2018.

Areej al-Sadhan told Insider that her brother’s Twitter account was accessed by Saudi authorities, but that it’s unclear whether it was a result of the hack of al-Ahmed’s Twitter account.

Since taking office in January, the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to pressure Saudi Arabia into reigning in its human-rights abuses, and the move has come alongside some advancements.

In February, the US ended support for the Saudi-led Yemen war and Blinken called on his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, to remedy the kingdom’s poor human-rights record. The White House also made a petty dig at MBS, announcing that Biden’s counterpart in the kingdom was King Salman rather than the crown prince.

Several prominent rights activists were partially freed in 2021, most notably the women’s-right-to-drive activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

In February, Bader al-Ibrahim, a Saudi scientist, and Salah al-Haidar, the son of the detained women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, were also released. They were detained in April 2019 and charged with crimes relating to terror offenses.

They all remain under travel bans.

Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan was educated in the US, graduating from Notre Dame de Namur University in California in 2013.

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Saudi Arabia’s $500 million mega-city Neom is creating plans to harvest an unprecedented amount of data from future residents. Experts say it’s either dystopian or genius.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and a rendering of what Neom's The Line city transport underbelly will look like.
A composite image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a rendering of Neom’s The Line transport system.

  • Saudi Arabia is building a futuristic mega city from scratch named Neom.
  • The city plans to ask future residents to submit a huge amount of personal data to help it run.
  • Experts said technophiles would flock to Neom, but warned about potential mass surveillance.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that a new city would be built from scratch in Saudi Arabia’s northwest deserts.

Neom would be “a place for dreamers,” he said, adding the $500 billion city would run by artificial intelligence and be funded by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.

Early plans for the city imagined flying taxis, holographic teachers, and an artificial moon. But few concrete details emerged until this January, when Neom authorities announced “The Line,” a string of settlements connected by a vast subterranean transport system.

Beating back doubts over funding and feasibility, work is moving ahead, as it is at several of the crown prince’s other pet projects.

An image showing "The Line" string of settlements that will make up Neom.
An image showing “The Line” string of settlements that will make up Neom.

Last month James Bradley, Neom’s head of technology, told ZDNet he wanted to collect 90% of available data from residents and smart infrastructure. Existing smart cities use about 1% of such data, Bradley added, without providing specifics.

Bradley’s interview is the first insight into how Neom will run. The Neom press office declined to comment for this story.

Current smart cities like Songdo, South Korea, use data from internet of things sensors to perform actions like alert people when their bus is approaching or prevent water waste – but nothing in existence comes close to Neom’s plan.

How ‘Neos’ works

Coordinating Neom’s data-collection effort will be an operating system called Neos, Bradley said.

Each resident would have a unique ID number, and Neos would process data from heart-rate monitors, phones, facial-recognition cameras, bank details, and thousands of internet of things devices around the city, per the plans reported by ZDNet.

For example, Neos would know if you had fallen over, and if you stayed down too long, it would deploy drones to your location and alert emergency services, ZDNet reported. You wouldn’t need to check into your hotel room online or at a desk, as a door-handle fingerprint scanner will suffice, ZDNet reported.

“Neom will be proactive,” Bradley told the outlet. “It can take action. And ultimately, it is personalized.”

For some, such extreme digital intrusion is an ominous prospect, but Neom is interested in attracting those who embrace the future.

Residents will have the option of choosing how much personal data they submit to Neos, Bradley told ZDNet, adding: “An individual’s right to privacy is theirs, but the ability to use that information is directly correlated to the value they receive.”

It is not clear whether Neom would require residents to pass over a minimum amount of data for basic functionalities.

Bradley NEom
James Bradley, Neom head of technology, talking about the city’s proposed underground transport network.

Convenience utopia or surveillance nightmare?

Experts described Neos as an extraordinary proposition, but noted that the deep level of technological integration could deter many from moving there – and leave the door open to a nefarious exploitation of personal data.

“Neom says you can opt in and opt out, but people will be skeptical of the truth of that,” Jonathan Richenthal, the author of “Smart Cities for Dummies,” told Insider.

“We hear too many stories where we thought there was a sensor on a traffic light that was used to count traffic but also had a camera in it that they didn’t switch off.”

Vincent Mosco, the author of “The Smart City in a Digital World,” added that Neom would have to show total transparency over the data gathered.

“We have no clear sense of what will be done with it,” he told Insider. “From what we know about Saudi Arabia, you know it’s unlikely to be used for good.”

Saudi Arabia’s government has been accused of hacking the phones of journalists, dissidents, and activists, as well as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Mosco and Richenthal both cited the case of a smart-city district proposed for Toronto in 2017 by Google’s SideWalk Labs that was scrapped in 2020 over surveillance concerns.

“No one trusted Google to manage data well or not pry on every activity you’re doing,” Richenthal said.

“You transfer that to a region of the world that inherently has transparency challenges already, and it gets more complicated.”

The Line Neom
“The Line” at Neom, a string of cities connected by an underground transport system.

‘People will value the convenience’

Other experts noted that for technophiles and those greedy for convenience, utilizing their personal data is not an issue.

“We like rewards,” Professor Andrew Hudson-Smith, a professor of Digital Urban Systems at University College London, told Insider.

“People will buy into this as long as they’re given an incentive for it. That may be better healthcare, which is what Neom has said.”

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst and member of Neom’s advisory board, suggested that much of the data Neom plans to harness is likely already being taken by tech companies today.

“People will value the convenience and the associated elimination of bureaucracy … over sharing their digital data that many assume is already in the public domain given the technology that they use,” he told Insider in an email, citing the use of smartphones and smartwatches.

For many, surrendering personal data isn’t an issue, added Professor Jiska Englebert, a communications and smart-city expert at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication in Rotterdam.

Neom’s residents are likely to be “the kind of people who say, ‘I don’t care, it will be quite impersonal, and if is is personal it will give me all kinds of benefits,'” she told Insider.

NEOM Saudi
The site of Neom in Tabuk Province, Saudi Arabia.

For other experts, the main barrier Neom faces is not a concern over surveillance.

“The main challenge is to create a society in the middle of nowhere, rather than to make people comfortable with the idea of sharing personal data and being surrounded by drones, robots, and AI,” Federico Cugurullo, an assistant professor at Trinity College, Dublin, who studies smart-city ecosystems, told Insider.

By and large, experts are excited about Neom, though they caveat that smart cities rarely resemble their original blueprints.

Richenthal said he was especially optimistic about Neom’s health-focused ethos, given that current cities place huge stress on their residents’ daily lives. For example, Neom plans to be car-free, reducing air and noise pollution, and have abundant green space.

“Every city eventually needs to upgrade and we are desperately looking for good ideas,” he said.

“This could create a bar for cities to learn what’s possible, what works.”

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Jeff Bezos has been awarded $218,000 in legal fees after fighting off a defamation suit brought by his girlfriend’s brother. Here’s how the Amazon CEO became embroiled in a tangled web of lawsuits and family drama.

Michael Sanchez Jeff Bezos
Michael Sanchez, left, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

  • Jeff Bezos was awarded $218,000 in legal fees after Michael Sanchez’s unsuccessful defamation suit.
  • Sanchez, the brother of Bezos’ girlfriend, said Bezos falsely accused him of leaking private texts.
  • Last November, a judge threw out the suit, citing a lack of evidence.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Jeff Bezos has been awarded $218,000 in legal fees, the latest development in the high-profile legal drama surrounding the Amazon CEO.

What began as a tabloid scoop two years ago revealing the relationship between Bezos and his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, has since resulted in investigations into her brother, Michael, the National Enquirer, and even the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, as well as a protracted legal battle between Michael Sanchez and Bezos.

Here’s where the conflict began and everything that’s happened since.

In January 2019, Bezos and his then wife, MacKenzie, announced they were divorcing.

Jeff Bezos Amazon Oscar After Party
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and writer MacKenzie Bezos, now MacKenzie Scott.

Source: Jeff Bezos/Twitter

Their announcement was followed soon after by bombshell reporting from Page Six and the National Enquirer: Bezos was in a relationship with Lauren Sanchez, a helicopter pilot and former TV anchor.

Jeff Bezos Lauren Sanchez Patrick Whitesell
Jeff Bezos with Lauren Sanchez and her husband Patrick Whitesell.

Source: Page Six

At the time, Sanchez was married to Patrick Whitesell, the co-CEO of WME, a Hollywood talent agency. The couple had been friends with Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos because they had houses near each other in Seattle, according to Page Six.

patrick whitesell lauren sanchez
Patrick Whitesell and Lauren Sanchez.

Source: Page Six

The Enquirer said it had conducted a four-month investigation into the relationship between Bezos and Sanchez, tracking the couple “across five states and 40,000 miles” and tailing them on hikes and dinner dates.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos.

Source: The National Enquirer 

Beyond its own surveillance of Bezos and Sanchez, the Enquirer reported it had acquired “raunchy messages” the couple had sent each other, some of which the tabloid published. The Enquirer also said it had racy photos of both Bezos and Sanchez, including one that was too explicit to describe in print.

Amazon jeff bezos
Jeff Bezos.

Source: The National Enquirer 

Soon after, The Daily Beast reported that Bezos was funding an investigation – headed up by his personal head of security, Gavin de Becker – into who had leaked his private messages to the Enquirer. De Becker said at the time that he thought the leaks were “politically motivated,” which AMI denied.

Gavin de Becker
Gavin de Becker.

Source: The Daily Beast

In February 2019, Bezos responded to the scandal in an explosive blog post, in which he accused National Enquirer publisher AMI and its then CEO, David Pecker, of trying to blackmail him.

david pecker
Then-AMI CEO David Pecker in 2014.

Source: Jeff Bezos/Medium

Bezos wrote that AMI had been threatening him with the publication of explicit pictures he’d taken of himself unless he stopped investigating who leaked his photos and texts to the tabloid. In response, Bezos published the emails he’d received from AMI.

Jeff Bezos Amazon
Jeff Bezos.

Source: Jeff Bezos/Medium

“Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten,” Bezos wrote.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos.

Source: Jeff Bezos/Medium

De Becker told The Daily Beast that Michael Sanchez was “among the people we’ve been speaking with and looking at” during the investigation and that “strong leads point to political motives” for leaking information to the Enquirer.

Michael Sanchez
Michael Sanchez.

Source: The Daily Beast

Sanchez had described himself as a supporter of President Donald Trump, who had a longtime ally in Pecker. De Becker told the Washington Post in February 2019 that he thought the Enquirer had published its scoop about Bezos and Sanchez in order to embarrass Bezos, and that members of Trump’s 2016 campaign were involved.

david pecker 2012
David Pecker in 2012.

Source: The Washington Post

A feud has simmered for years between Trump and Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post. Trump has made the Post a target over the years and has lumped together Amazon and the Post as a way to cast doubt on the paper’s credibility.

jeff bezos donald trump
Jeff Bezos and President Donald Trump.

Source: The Washington Post

For his part, Sanchez denied de Becker’s allegation, accusing him of telling “lies, half-truths, sloppy tabloid leaks, [and] crazy conspiracy theories” in a statement to the Washington Post. He told Fox News that “all of the investigations thus far have cleared me of any involvement in the below-the-belt selfies.”

Michael Sanchez
Michael Sanchez.

Source: The Washington Post, Business Insider

Sanchez told Business Insider that he did not leak Bezos’ “penis photos” to the Enquirer, but did not specifically deny leaking text messages between his sister and Bezos. “I’m not saying I didn’t do something,” he later told Vanity Fair, but said his only goal was to protect his sister and Bezos’ relationship.

Jeff Bezos Lauren Sanchez
Lauren Sanchez and Jeff Bezos.

Source: Business Insider, Vanity Fair

Sanchez had worked as a Hollywood talent manager, and he told Fox News that Bezos had asked him for help handling the scandal around his divorce. “He said that he didn’t think the Amazon PR team was equipped to handle this kind of story,” Sanchez said of Bezos.

Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos addresses the audience during a keynote session at the Amazon Re:MARS conference on robotics and artificial intelligence at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 6, 2019.
Jeff Bezos.

Source: Business Insider

In March 2019, de Becker wrote in The Daily Beast that he believed the Saudi Arabian government had hacked Bezos’ phone in order to gain access to his private messages in retaliation for the Post reporting Saudi agents killed Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Jeff Bezos Jamal Khashoggi memorial
Jeff Bezos attends the opening ceremony for a monument for journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Source: The Daily Beast

In January 2020, that assertion was backed up by reports by the Guardian and United Nations investigators, who said they had “reasonable certainty” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in a hack of Bezos’ iPhone.

mohammad bin salman jeff bezos
Mohammed bin Salman and Jeff Bezos.

Source: Business Insider

Throughout it all, AMI has insisted that Michael Sanchez is the single source behind its reporting on Lauren Sanchez’s relationship with Bezos. According to a New York Times report from January, Lauren Sanchez shared the texts and photos with her brother, who then licensed them to the Enquirer for $200,000 in October 2018.

Jeff Bezos Lauren Sanchez
Lauren Sanchez and Jeff Bezos.

Source: The New York Times

In February, Michael Sanchez filed a defamation lawsuit against Bezos that claims Bezos and de Becker falsely accused him of providing the nude photos to the Enquirer. Sanchez claimed in the suit that Bezos told journalists he had handed over the images to the tabloid, but Sanchez said he never had the photos in his possession.

michael sanchez bezos 4x3

Source: Business Insider

Following the lawsuit filing, Lauren Sanchez said in a statement to TMZ that her brother “secretly provided my most personal information to the National Enquirer – a deep and unforgivable betrayal. My family is hurting over this new baseless and untrue lawsuit, and we truly hope my brother finds peace.”

Lauren Sanchez

Source: TMZ

In the lawsuit, Sanchez used the word “fiancé” to describe Bezos’ relationship to Lauren Sanchez, implying that the couple is engaged.

jeff bezos lauren sanchez
Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez outside the Taj Mahal in January.

Source: Business Insider

Bezos quickly filed a motion to dismiss the suit under a California law that’s intended to protect against frivolous lawsuits. Bezos said Sanchez’s suit amounted to “extortion” and directly threatened free speech.

Jeff Bezos

Source: Business Insider

In November 2020, Los Angeles County Superior Court ruled in favor of Bezos, striking down Sanchez’s defamation suit. “Here, there is no admissible evidence that Defendants published the subject statements. Plaintiff’s declaration merely discusses what he was told by reporters, which is inadmissible hearsay,” Judge John P. Doyle wrote in his ruling.

Jeff Bezos

“We respectfully disagree with the trial court’s ruling and look forward to vindicating Mr. Sanchez’s claims on appeal,” Tom Warren, Sanchez’s attorney, told Insider in an emailed statement at the time. 

William Isaacson, an attorney representing Bezos and de Becker, said in an emailed statement to Insider that “journalists will surely take the Court’s ruling into account when considering Michael Sanchez as a source.”

“My clients are pleased that the judge has thrown out the baseless case filed by Michael Sanchez,” Isaacson said. “When it comes to frivolous lawsuits seeking money or attention, the law is clear — and the law worked.”

Source: Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles

In January, Bezos filed a motion to compel Sanchez to cover $1.7 million in legal fees following his unsuccessful suit.

jeff bezos lauren sanchez anna wintour fashion
Sanchez and Bezos at the Tom Ford runway show in February 2020.

Bezos and de Becker requested that Sanchez reimburse them for $1,676,919.50 in attorney fees and $36,019.26 in other costs they racked up while defending the suit.

Tom Warren, an attorney for Sanchez, told Insider in a statement that “Mr. Bezos’ fee request is obscene, even grotesque, on many levels.”

Source: Business Insider

The court ruled in March that Bezos would be awarded money to cover the fees, but only a small portion of what he originally requested: $218,385, plus an additional $36,000 in legal costs.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos.

The judge ruled that the amount of hours billed (more than 2,070) and the number of lawyers put on the case was “not reasonable,” according to Bloomberg

“This was not a matter that required seven partners and 11 associates,” Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Doyle said. 

Source: Business Insider

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Biden administration releases report on Khashoggi’s killing directly implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

MBS
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has faced global condemnation over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

  • The Biden administration on Friday released a long-awaited report on Jamal Khashoggi’s killing.
  • The declassified intelligence report directly implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
  • The Trump administration prioritized the US-Saudi relationship and refused to release the report.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The Biden administration on Friday released a declassified US intelligence report that explicitly implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the brutal killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said the report, provided by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

It added: “We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”

The report noted that Prince Mohammed since 2017 has had “absolute control” over the kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, “making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”

“The Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him,” the report said.

The intelligence assessment also named with “high confidence” 21 people who “participated in, ordered, or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi on behalf of Muhammad bin Salman.” The report said, however, that it was unclear “whether these individuals knew in advance that the operation would result in Khashoggi’s death.”

The names included Saud al-Qahtani, formerly a close advisor to Prince Mohammed who’s been accused of directing the operation behind Khashoggi’s murder. Al-Qahtani was dismissed shortly after the killing.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain, September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS
Khashoggi at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London.

The Trump administration repeatedly defied congressional demands for an unclassified report identifying any current or former Saudi officials responsible for Khashoggi’s death in a Saudi Consulate.

The release of the declassified report on Friday is one sign of how President Joe Biden is drastically altering the dynamic with Riyadh. After Khashoggi’s killing, President Donald Trump defended Prince Mohammed and suggested that “maybe” the Saudi leader had no knowledge of the killing. “The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump said.

As part of this realignment, Biden in early February announced an end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

‘A deliberate, premeditated execution’

In 2019, the UN released a report that also implicated the Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi’s killing, which it described as “a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law.”

Khashoggi, who once had close ties to the Saudi royal family, was killed and dismembered by agents of his own government in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. His remains have still not been found. Khashoggi had been lured to the consulate to pick up documents necessary to marry his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish citizen.

“Assessments of the recordings by intelligence officers in Turkey and other countries suggest that Mr. Khashoggi could have been injected with a sedative and then suffocated using a plastic bag,” the UN report said. Turkish officials have also said that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered with a bone saw.

A Washington Post columnist at the time of his killing, Khashoggi was often critical of the Saudi government.

Khashoggi’s gruesome killing prompted global outrage and sparked bipartisan calls for the US to reevaluate its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Democrats and Republicans alike explicitly accused Prince Mohammed of being behind Khashoggi’s death.

But Trump prioritized preserving the US-Saudi relationship and stood by Prince Mohammed, citing the importance of arms sales. He brushed off the CIA’s conclusion that the Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s killing.

Trump Saudis
President Donald Trump, holding a chart of military hardware sales, next to Prince Mohammed in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018.

Trump also rejected efforts from congressional lawmakers to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where a war has fostered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Trump at one point boasted that he’d shielded Prince Mohammed from congressional retribution over Khashoggi’s killing, the veteran journalist Bob Woodward reported.

Biden snubs MBS as he recalibrates the US-Saudi relationship

The US-Saudi relationship has taken a sharp turn under Biden. Beyond releasing the Khashoggi report and moving to end US involvement in Yemen, the White House recently announced that Biden would speak with King Salman and not Prince Mohammed in official communications. This marked a major diplomatic rebuke of the Saudi crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and underscored how serious Biden is about recalibration.

Biden spoke with King Salman for the first time as president on Thursday. A White House readout of the call said Biden “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”

“Together they discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups,” the White House said.

The readout did not mention Khashoggi, and it wasn’t clear whether Biden brought up the Saudi journalist’s killing. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.

Following the release of the report on Friday, the Treasury Department unveiled sanctions on Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, a former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence services, and the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force over their involvement in Khashoggi’s killing. No sanctions against Prince Mohammed were announced, even though the intelligence assessment said that he approved Khashoggi’s murder and that the RIF answered to him.

A senior administration official said the Biden administration was concerned that sanctioning the crown prince could “rupture” the US-Saudi relationship, Reuters reported.

Read the full ODNI report:

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Biden spoke with Saudi King Salman for the first time, but didn’t say if they discussed Khashoggi’s murder

Khashoggi
People hold posters picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and lightened candles during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018.

  • Biden spoke with Saudi King Salman for the first time, but it’s unclear if he mentioned Khashoggi.
  • The call came ahead of the release of a US intelligence report on Khashoggi’s murder.
  • The report was expected to implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

President Joe Biden spoke with King Salman of Saudi Arabia for the first time on Thursday, ahead of the public release of a highly anticipated declassified US intelligence report on the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. 

The report was expected to implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s killing. 

Biden in his conversation with King Salman “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law,” a White House readout of the call said.

But the readout made no mention of Khashoggi or his brutal killing, and it’s unclear if Biden discussed the Saudi journalist’s murder with King Salman. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The fact Biden spoke with King Salman, who is 85 and reportedly in poor health, instead of Prince Mohammed is directly linked to the ongoing fallout over Khashoggi’s killing. 

The Saudi crown prince, colloquially known as “MBS,” is the kingdom’s de facto ruler. But as the Biden administration prioritizes recalibrating the US-Saudi relationship, the White House has made a point to state that the president will speak directly to King Salman and not Prince Mohammed.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier this month said that King Salman – not the crown prince – was Biden’s proper “counterpart” in Saudi Arabia. This marked a major diplomatic snub of the crown prince. 

That said, Prince Mohammed, who is also the Saudi defense minister, spoke to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week. “That’s the appropriate line of communication,” Psaki told reporters on Wednesday of the conversation between Prince Mohammed and Austin.

Prince Mohammed has been widely accused of orchestrating Khashoggi’s death, which occurred at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Khashoggi was lured to the consulate – where he sought documents to marry his Turkish fiance – killed by agents of the Saudi government, and dismembered. His remains have never been located. 

Trump Saudis
President Donald Trump holds a chart of military hardware sales as he welcomes Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, March 20, 2018.

Not long after Khashoggi’s murder, media reports circulated that the CIA concluded Prince Mohammed ordered the killing. A subsequent report from the UN also implicated Prince Mohammed.

Khashoggi’s murder sparked outrage worldwide, and led to bipartisan calls in Washington for the US to reassess its relationship with the Saudis.

Democrats and Republicans alike pushed for the US to end support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where a devastating war has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

But then-President Donald Trump threw cold water on these efforts. Trump prioritized the US-Saudi partnership, touting US arms sales to the kingdom, and controversially stood by the crown prince.

During his presidential campaign, Biden signaled that his approach to the dynamic between Riyadh and Washington would represent a drastic shift from Trump’s. Biden in early February announced an end to US support for the Saudis in the Yemen conflict. But his administration has emphasized that the US is still committed to helping the Saudis with its security. The US has long viewed Saudi Arabia as an important buffer against Iran, which both countries view as a threat. 

Along these lines, the White House on Thursday said Biden and King Salman “discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups.” 

“The President told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible,” the White House added. “The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest.”

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