That, analysts say, is the latest example of Biden’s failure to follow through on his promise to seek accountability for the killing – and put human rights at the heart of United States foreign policy.
“This trip is really a slap in the face to all of us who have been advocating for justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” said Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a group envisioned by Khashoggi and formally established after his death.
Relations between Riyadh and Washington are not as warm as they were under ex-President Donald Trump, who personally defended MBS amid widespread anger in Congress following the killing, and the Biden administration has taken some steps to shed light on what happened.
Earlier this year, the administration released a brief report on the US intelligence community’s assessment of the murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was killed and dismembered after going to retrieve paperwork at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul 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,” the report said.
The findings were rejected by the Saudi government, which has blamed the murder on a crew of rogue officials. Eight unnamed defendants have been sentenced to between seven and 20 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for alleged involvement in the killing.
Saudi officials initially insisted that Khashoggi left the Istanbul consulate unharmed. More than two weeks later, the kingdom acknowledged the killing, but said it was the result of an unauthorised operation that took place without the knowledge of top officials.
The US report’s release renewed calls for Washington to hold the crown prince accountable, but the Biden administration decided against imposing sanctions on bin Salman, arguing that it sought to recalibrate – “not rupture” – ties with Riyadh.
Agnes Callamard, the former United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, expressed disappointment in the Biden administration this week, saying “nothing much has changed” since the release of the intelligence community’s assessment.
“They have to be really careful that their pretence of being concerned with human rights, their commitment to democracy, their commitment to human rights, that these do not become pretence only,” said Callamard, who is now secretary general at Amnesty International.
In her own report for the UN in 2019, Callamard concluded that the Saudi government was ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.
Speaking at an event commemorating the anniversary of the murder on Thursday, Callamard said although those who commissioned the murder have yet to be brought to justice, rights activists and the UN probe have exposed them.
“We have certainly shattered their veneer,” she said. “In my view, the emperor is naked.”
Khashoggi’s murder came at a time when Democrats in Washington were already questioning then-President Trump’s cosy relationship with Saudi royals.
As Trump moved to protect Saudi Arabia’s top leaders from the fallout of the murder, Democrats and some Republicans in Congress pushed for accountability for the death of Khashoggi, who was a US resident and worked for a US newspaper.
As a candidate, Biden echoed that anger against Saudi Arabia. “Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered – and I believe in the order of the crown prince,” Biden said in late 2019 on a crowded debate stage ahead of the Democratic primaries.
He pledged to make the kingdom “pay the price” for the murder and promised to end weapon sales to Riyadh. “There’s little social redeeming value of the present government in Saudi Arabia,” Biden said at the time.