Joe Biden has been accused of “capitulation” after his administration said Saudi Arabia’s crown prince should not face legal action over the murder of a US-based journalist.
Despite the US president having previously vowed to make a “pariah” out of the country’s rulers following the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the State Department has declared Mohammed bin Salman’s high office should protect him from prosecution for his alleged role in the slaying.
The official call for the prince, widely known as MBS, to be granted immunity came as he faces a lawsuit filed by the fiancée of Mr Khashoggi and the rights group he founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now.
The request is non-binding and a final decision will rest with a judge.
But the move is bound to anger human rights activists and many US politicians, coming as Saudi Arabia cracks down on critics at home and abroad and has cut oil production, a move seen as undermining efforts by the US and its allies to punish Russia for its war against Ukraine.
The State Department said the decision to try to protect the Saudi crown prince from US courts in Mr Khashoggi’s killing was “purely a legal determination”, citing what it said was a long-standing precedent.
Despite its recommendation, the State Department said it “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Saudi officials killed the Washington Post columnist at the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
They are believed to have dismembered him, although his remains have never been found.
The US intelligence community concluded Saudi Arabia’s crown prince had approved the killing of the well-known and respected journalist, who had been critical of his brutal suppression of opponents.
Saudi Arabia has denied his involvement.
The statement issued by the Biden administration highlighted visa restrictions and other penalties that it had imposed on lower-ranking Saudi officials over the death.
The State Department said: “From the earliest days of this administration, the United States government has expressed its grave concerns regarding Saudi agents’ responsibility for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.”
The statement did not mention the crown prince’s own alleged role.
As a candidate on the campaign trail back in 2019, Mr Biden said: “I think it was a flat-out murder. And I think we should have nailed it as that.
“I publicly said at the time we should treat it that way and there should be consequences relating to how we deal with those – that power.”
But as president he has sought to ease tensions with the kingdom, including bumping fists with Prince Mohammed during a trip in July as the US moves to persuade Saudi Arabia to reverse a series of cuts in oil production.
The head of DAWN, Sarah Leah Whitson, said: “It’s beyond ironic that President Biden has singlehandedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable.”
Back in February 2021, Mr Biden had ruled out the US government imposing punishment on Prince Mohammed himself for the killing of Mr Khashoggi, a Washington resident.
Mr Biden, speaking after he authorised the release of a declassified version of the intelligence community’s findings on Prince Mohammed’s alleged role in the killing, argued at the time there was no precedent for the US to move against the leader of a strategic partner.
Ms Whitson said: “It’s impossible to read the Biden administration’s move today as anything more than a capitulation to Saudi pressure tactics, including slashing oil output to twist our arms to recognize MBS’s fake immunity ploy.”
The Biden administration also had the option of not stating an opinion either way.
Sovereign immunity holds that states and their officials are protected from some legal proceedings in other foreign states’ domestic courts.
Upholding the concept helps ensure American leaders in turn do not face being dragged before courts in other countries, the State Department said.
Human rights advocates had argued that the Biden administration would embolden Prince Mohammed and other authoritarian leaders around the world in more rights abuses if it supported the crown prince’s claim that his high office safeguarded him from prosecution.
Prince Mohammed serves as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in the place of his father, King Salman.
In September, the Saudi king also temporarily transferred his title of prime minister – a title normally held by the Saudi monarch – to Prince Mohammed.
Critics branded it a bid to strengthen his son’s immunity claim.