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US quietly welcomes Saudi Arabia's Khalid bin Salman for talks on Yemen, Iran

Visit by deputy defence minister comes months after Biden administration released report concluding his brother, MBS, authorised killing of Jamal Khashoggi
Prince Khalid is expected to meet with Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan, as well as with US State and defence department officials.
Prince Khalid is expected to meet with Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan, as well as with US State and defence department officials (AFP)
By in
Washington

US officials quietly welcomed Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman on Tuesday, months after an intelligence report linked his brother, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to the killing of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Biden administration did not publicly disclose Prince Khalid's visit in advance. According to reports, the royal met with senior US officials where they discussed the war in Yemen, military contracts and Saudi concerns over US efforts to return to a nuclear agreement with Iran.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the murder of Khashoggi could be a topic of conversation during the prince's visit, but said she would not discuss the matter further.

A White House statement on Prince Khalid's meeting with national security adviser Jake Sullivan did not mention Khashoggi's murder, although it said Sullivan "emphasized the importance of progress in advancing human rights in the Kingdom."

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The statement said the two also discussed Washington's "commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups".

The prince also met with Colin Kahl, the US defence undersecretary for policy, where the two discussed "efforts to end the war in Yemen and the shared US-Saudi commitment to counter Iran's destabilizing activities" and other issues, the Pentagon said.

Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, mainly the United Arab Emirates, entered the Yemeni government's war against the Houthi rebels in March 2015 and began a wide-ranging aerial bombing campaign. 

The coalition also introduced an air and naval blockade that it says is to prevent the Houthis from smuggling weapons into the country.

The UN and several human rights groups have said the blockade has heavily restricted the flow of aid and goods coming into the country, putting millions at risk of famine.

After more than six years of war, Yemen is frequently described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with 20.7 million people - 66 percent of the population, including 11.3 million children - in need of assistance.

US-Saudi relations

Prince Khalid's visit comes as rights groups and US legislators have repeatedly called on Biden to sanction his brother, known by his initials MBS, for his role in Khashoggi's murder.

Khashoggi was brutally killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, where he had gone to retrieve documents for his upcoming marriage.

When Khashoggi vanished, Prince Khalid, who was the kingdom's ambassador in Washington, insisted for days that the accusations of official Saudi involvement were groundless.

The Washington Post reported at the time that Prince Khalid told Khashoggi it would be safe to go to the consulate.

The unclassified US intelligence report released in February found that MBS had approved the operation that led to Khashoggi's murder.

The findings have heaped pressure on Biden who was elected last year on a promise to put human rights at the centre of US foreign policy.

The US president said he planned to "recalibrate" US-Saudi relations – and would communicate directly with King Salman, not with his son, the crown prince.

King Salman, 85, has largely stepped back from an active role in diplomacy and government and spent some time in hospital last year.

Meanwhile, MBS serves as the country's defence minister and is in overall charge of the Saudi economy and its investment funds. He routinely meets visiting foreign dignitaries and conducts diplomacy with foreign leaders and is considered to be the kingdom's de facto leader.

'US still has their back'

Prince Khalid's visit comes as the kingdom's rulers continue to keep several members of the royal family and rights advocates in detention.

"Prince KBS can travel although he is working for the Crown Prince, directly involved in the murder" of Khashoggi, tweeted Lina al-Hathloul on Tuesday. She is the sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, who MBS imprisoned for more than two years following her high-profile campaign for the kingdom to allow women to drive.

On Monday, representatives of the family of detained Saudi Princess Basmah bint Saud filed an appeal with the UN requesting that the world body intervene in her case and demand Saudi authorities provide proof that she is alive.

Princess Basmah has been held incommunicado for over a year along with her daughter Suhoud al-Sharif.

Sarah Leah Whitson, who leads the Arab rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), issued a scathing response to the Biden administration's policy towards Riyadh.

"US still has their back, no matter how awfully they terrorize their citizens," she tweeted.