ISTANBUL – Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, described Joe Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia as “heartbreaking,” accusing the U.S. president of backing down from his pledge of prioritizing human rights.
In an interview with The Associated Press in Istanbul a day before Biden travels to Saudi Arabia on Friday to meet with the crown prince, Cengiz said Biden should press Saudi Arabia — a country that she described as a “terrible ally” — to embrace a human rights agenda. She also wants Biden to seek more answers from Saudi authorities over what happened to Khashoggi’s remains.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has long denied any knowledge or involvement in Khashoggi’s killing, which was carried out inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by agents who worked for the young heir to the throne. A U.S. intelligence report that Biden declassified after coming to office said Khashoggi's killing could not have happened without Prince Mohammed’s knowledge.
Cengiz had gone with Khashoggi to the Saudi Consulate for an appointment to pick up documents needed to marry her. While she waited outside, he went in — and never reappeared.
“That day destroyed my life. And I don’t want to remember any part of that day,” Cengiz said Thursday, recalling that they’d planned to choose new furniture for their home after his consulate visit and meet with friends.
At the time of his murder, Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and contributing columnist for The Washington Post who had written articles critical of the crown prince’s widening crackdown on activists. He had previously held positions in the Saudi government, but had turned into a critic at a time when the crown prince was being hailed in Western capitals for ushering in social reforms inside the kingdom.
The October 2018 killing and attempts to cover it up drew international condemnation, and the reputation of Prince Mohammed has never fully recovered.
The prince has, however, begun to lure back big name Western investors who initially shied away from the kingdom after the killing. He’s also reset ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Turkey seeks Gulf investments to buoy the strained economy.
The kingdom tried and found some people guilty for the operation that killed Khashoggi, but no senior officials or anyone responsible for overseeing it was ever convicted.
Biden came to office a sharp critic of the crown prince, pivoting away from the warm relationship cultivated under President Donald Trump. Biden said during his campaign that he believed Khashoggi was killed on orders of Prince Mohammed, describing the kingdom as a “pariah” and stating “there’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
“It’s a very huge backing down actually,” Cengiz said of Biden’s decision now to reset diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia now. “It’s heartbreaking and disappointing. And Biden will lose his moral authority by putting oil and expediency over principles and values.”
Oil prices have been steadily climbing for months, but increased even more after Russia’s war in Ukraine. Energy prices, inflation and the economy are on voters’ minds as Americans prepare to head to the polls this November.
Members of Biden’s Democratic Party have urged the president to make human rights a key part of his discussions with the crown prince during his meeting Friday while acknowledging that Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. ally and oil producer.
Biden on Thursday declined to commit to mentioning Khashoggi's murder when he meets the prince.
“I always bring up human rights,” Biden said during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid. “But my position on Khashoggi has been so clear. If anyone doesn’t understand it, in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven’t been around for a while.”
Biden said the purpose of his trip to Saudi Arabia is “broader” and designed to “reassert” U.S. influence in the Middle East. He’s scheduled to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes several Arab nations.
Cengiz expressed profound disappointment with Biden's stance.
“One of Biden’s promises (was) being different. It was a very big hope to me to believe, again, that Biden will do something for me and for Jamal,” she said. “Instead of being different now, he’s doing the same and embracing dictators in the region right now. So it’s a very disappointing for me.”
“He has to ask what happened to his body? Where is his body? Still we do not have any answer," she added. “And people need to get the truth in this case. And we cannot forget.”
"We cannot forget what happened to Jamal.”
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.