Morning Brief

Khashoggi Report To Test U.S.-Saudi Ties

Although the details of the report are an open secret, its publication further signals a break with Riyadh.

Joe Biden—then Vice President—attends a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office between President Barack Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the White House September 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
Joe Biden—then Vice President—attends a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office between President Barack Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the White House September 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A declassified intelligence assessment tying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is expected to be released, COVAX begins delivering vaccines, and India and Pakistan agree to a Kashmir cease-fire.

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Khashoggi Report Expected Today

The United States is set to release a declassified intelligence assessment today that is expected to name Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the instigator of the plot to kill and dismember Saudi critic andWashington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

In order to provide a slight cushion to the blow, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said U.S. President Joe Biden will hold his first phone call with Saudi King Salman “soon.” Previous reports had indicated the call would take place yesterday.

Open secret. The report is unlikely to surprise, however, as the main thrust of the CIA assessment has already been an open secret for years. Speaking after a classified briefing in 2018, Sen. Bob Corker—who has since left the Senate—was clear in his evaluation. “There is zero question in my mind that the crown prince directed the murder and was kept apprised of the situation all the way through,” he said.

His colleague, Sen. Lindsay Graham, went further. “There’s not a smoking gun, there’s a smoking saw,” Graham said, in reference to the bone saw allegedly used by the 15-man Saudi team to help dispose of Khashoggi’s remains. “You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion and that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MBS and that he was intricately involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi,” he added.

So where does this leave the U.S.-Saudi relationship?  Along with the recent decision to pause offensive weapons deals with the kingdom, there’s reason for Riyadh to be worried. Writing in Foreign Policy, Varsha Koduvayur outlines the steps the crown prince has already taken to curry favor with the new administration, including the recent release of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. But, Koduvayur writes, “if Saudi Arabia truly wants to right its image and repair its standing with the current U.S. administration, it must pursue more permanent and lasting reforms that go beyond calculated gestures.”

Jamal who? As time has passed, Mohammed bin Salman has made his way back into the public spotlight (including in a widely-mocked promotional video for his pet smart-city project), and many of his Western supporters have welcomed him back—look no further than the CEOs who cancelled their appearances at the “Davos in the desert” investment conference following the killing of Khashoggi only to return this year. In Foreign Policy, Marcus Baram reported on the influence-peddling companies that have returned to the Saudi fold after a brief hiatus.

What We’re Following Today

Foreign leaders reach out to Myanmar. Foreign governments held their first official meeting with a representative of the Myanmar military junta since the Feb. 1 coup, when Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and her Thai counterpart Don Pramudwinai met with Myanmar foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin at a Bangkok airport on Wednesday. Retno said she told Wunna Maung Lwin that “the wishes of the Myanmar people must be heard,” and called for “an inclusive democratic transition process.” Retno had reportedly planned to visit Myanmar today, although the trip was quickly postponed once the agenda leaked as activists complained a visit would be tantamount to endorsing the coup.

COVAX begins vaccine rollout. The first shipments from the embattled COVAX program began to arrive in partner countries on Wednesday, beginning with Ghana, as the vaccine initiative starts its along awaited rollout. Another batch of doses is set to land in Ivory Coast on Friday. COVAX says it has enough vaccine stocks to inoculate 20 percent of residents in each of the recipient countries by the end of the year. Although G-7 countries agreed to boost their COVAX spending to $7.5 billion during a meeting last week, only France has pledged to donate some of its vaccine supply to the program.

India-Pakistan cease-fire. Indian and Pakistani forces have concluded a cease-fire at the de facto border between the two countries in the disputed Kashmir region, signaling a thaw in relations after numerous gunfire exchanges in recent months. “Both sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the [Line of Control] and all other sectors, with effect from midnight [on Friday],” a Pakistani military statement said.

Keep an Eye On

Nile dam dispute. Egypt has given its backing to a Sudanese proposal to bring in the United States, European Union, and United Nations in order to arbitrate a three-way dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Sudan announced the proposal last year after African Union-led talks failed to reach any conclusion. Last Friday, the Biden administration announced it had “de-linked” the suspension of $272 million in U.S. aid to Ethiopia over its filling of the GERD, but implied that the Ethiopian government’s actions in Tigray could mean the aid would still be held up.

Navalny’s status. Amnesty International has stripped Alexei Navalny of its designation as a “prisoner of conscience,” referencing previous anti-immigrant statements made by the Russian opposition figure. “Some of these comments, which Navalny has not publicly denounced, reach the threshold of advocacy of hatred, and this is at odds with Amnesty’s definition of a prisoner of conscience,” Amnesty said in a statement, adding that they would continue to advocate for his release.

Amnesty has walked back its awards before—famously stripping Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi of its Ambassador of Conscience award over her failure to speak out on behalf of her country’s Rohingya minority.

Odds and Ends

India’s new 110,000-seat cricket stadium, the largest in the world, has been renamed after Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a shock announcement by President Ramnath Kovind ahead of the first international match to be played there.

The move is even more surprising given that Modi himself inaugurated the stadium just last year as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Cricket Stadium, after one of the country’s independence leaders. The opposition Congress Party accused Modi’s Hindu nationalist government of renaming the stadium because Patel famously banned the RSS, a Hindu nationalist organization, after Mahatma Gandhi’s 1948 assassination by a man who had been a member of the group.

Patel is unlikely to be forgotten, however—he was immortalized in 2018 as the world’s tallest statue.

That’s it for today. 

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Correction: Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and her Thai counterpart met with Myanmar’s foreign minister on Wednesday. A previous version of this article used incorrect pronouns to refer to Marsudi.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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