Last week, Saudi King Salman designated his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as the kingdom's prime minister. Now, his lawyer is using that move to ask a federal U.S. judge to dismiss a civil suit accusing "MBS" of ordering the murder of Washington post columnist and gadfly Jamal Khashoggi.
The naming of MBS as prime minister "leaves no doubt that the Crown Prince is entitled to status-based immunity,” asserted attorney Michael Kellogg in a filing in the District of Columbia. Therefore, the judge “should dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims against the Crown Prince for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.”
Though MBS is the de facto ruler of the kingdom, his previous claims of sovereign immunity were considered weak at best, given he was "only" the crown prince. "Head of state immunity is an absolute, status-based immunity that typically extends to sitting heads of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers," University of California, Davis law professor William S. Dodge explained at Just Security.
The plaintiffs' attorneys are expected to argue that the prime minister "promotion" was purely meant to facilitate MBS's evasion of justice. "In announcing the change – an exception to Saudi law that calls for the king to also serve as prime minister – it is stated that King Salman will still act as prime minister in meetings in which he is present," reports The Guardian.
On Friday, the White House asked the judge for a 45-day postponement of the court's deadline for President Biden to offer his opinion over whether MBS merits sovereign immunity. The request cited the crown prince's new title as a reason for needing more time.
This would be the second delay granted by the court. The original deadline was Aug. 1 -- just two weeks after Biden visited Saudi Arabia and infamously fist-bumped MBS, obliterating his campaign promise to treat the kingdom as a "pariah" state.
When asked in a 2019 debate if he would "punish" senior Saudi leaders for Khashoggi's murder, Biden replied:
“Yes....Khashoggi was in fact murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince. And I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them. We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are. There's very little social redeeming value...in the present government in Saudi Arabia."
Even if the Biden administration is content to see MBS face civil suit scrutiny, the U.S. government may have its own interest in killing the lawsuit: If the case proceeds to discovery, plaintiff attorneys will be pressing the U.S. government to release its own sensitive files on the murder.
MBS stands accused of ordering Khashoggi's October 2018 murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A Washington, DC resident and writer for the Washington Post, Khashoggi was an outspoken critic of the crown prince and was launching an organization called Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). DAWN is a plaintiff in the civil suit, along with Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiancée at the time of his killing.
MBS has acknowledged the Saudi government's responsibility for the murder, but denies any personal involvement in it. A CIA assessment concluded with "medium to high confidence" that MBS "personally targeted Khashoggi."
Noting the killers were from MBS' top security units, the CIA said, "We assess it is highly unlikely this team of operators...carried out the operation without Muhammed bin Salman's authorization."