The Saudi crown prince’s actions in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi might have left the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund vulnerable to consequences, according to a former leading diplomat in the Obama administration.
The Biden administration on Friday released a previously classified intelligence report that assessed Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia approved the plan to assassinate Khashoggi in 2018.
The Saudi sovereign wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund, is chaired by MBS. It appears to have played a role in purchasing the aircraft that ferried Khashoggi’s killers to Turkey, where the murder occurred.
“If this is the case, it could become a target for American human rights sanctions,” according to Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of State. That could, in turn, “create an economic earthquake,” he said.
“If the United States determines that the Khashoggi killing was a targeted human rights violation, then the perpetrators and backers of that killing could be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act,” Rubin said.
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act authorizes the president to impose economic sanctions, freeze any U.S. assets, and deny entry into the U.S. to any foreign person who has engaged in human rights abuse or corruption, while prohibiting Americans from doing business with him or her. The Magnitsky Act has been used against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cronies. Putin called it, “A purely political, unfriendly act.”
Shortly after the release of Friday’s intelligence report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. banned 76 people from Saudi Arabia. He called it the “Khashoggi Ban.” Blinken added that the U.S. will not tolerate individuals who threaten or assault activists, dissidents and journalists on behalf of foreign governments. There was, however, no direct action taken against MBS.
The Saudi government rejected the findings of the U.S. report.
Sovereign wealth funds are prevalent among oil-rich countries. They provide a haven where countries can stockpile significant wealth, and store that money in a self-controlled coffer.
Funds like the MBS-chaired Public Investment Fund help buffer countries from oil price shocks that impact its annual fiscal position while also making the country resistant to external financial pressures. The Public Investment Fund has more than $360 billion in assets, and ranks as the eighth-largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, based on total assets.
“The Saudi fund, which is nearly five decades old, is massive and guarantees long term financial stability for the Kingdom,” Rubin said. “But it can also be a target for abuse, mismanagement, and corruption.”
In 2018, NBC News learned that the CIA concluded that MBS ordered the hit squad that lured Khashoggi into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, killed him, and cut his body into pieces.
MBS is the heir apparent to the Saudi crown. Rubin told CNBC that his domestic political critics will see the exposure of the Public Investment Fund to potential sanction as another sign of his recklessness and willingness to both risk Saudi assets and put the country in international crosshairs for his personal agenda.
“The international private sector, which initially shunned Saudi Arabia after the killing of Khashoggi, will also view this as another public relations setback for engagements with Saudi,” Rubin said. “It could also open up the fund to increased scrutiny, lawsuits, and legislative action against the fund’s activities, both from abroad and within Saudi.”
Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon told CNBC’s “The News with Shepard Smith” that President Joe Biden will not make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” because it would imply cutting off the economic and military relationship that the U.S. has with the Saudis.
This, despite, Biden in 2019 saying, “We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”