Journalist’s dis­ap­pear­ance tests Trump’s close Saudi ties

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Canada & World - DEB RIECH­MANN AND JONATHAN LEMIRE

WASH­ING­TON — Sword dancers. Gleam­ing palaces. Mil­i­tary jets stream­ing red, white and blue trails.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump soaked up the grandeur of Saudi Ara­bia on his first for­eign stop as pres­i­dent last year and en­vi­sioned huge ben­e­fits for the United States in build­ing closer ties with the re­pres­sive and oil-rich desert king­dom.

Now, the White House re­la­tion­ship with Riyadh is im­per­illed over the mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance of a Saudi writer, and the si­t­u­a­tion is cre­at­ing fric­tion be­tween the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and mem­bers of Congress de­mand­ing to know if the colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Post was killed in­side the Saudi con­sulate in Turkey.

Trump said he has talked to of­fi­cials at the high­est level of the king­dom and is “de­mand­ing ev­ery­thing” to ex­plain how Ja­mal Khashoggi, an ac­tivist who had been crit­i­cal of Saudi lead­ers, van­ished af­ter he walked into the con­sulate in Is­tan­bul to get doc­u­ments he needed to get mar­ried.

Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties claim Khashoggi, who resided in the United States, was killed by mem­bers of an elite Saudi “as­sas­si­na­tion squad.” The king­dom de­scribes the al­le­ga­tion as “base­less.” But if Saudi Ara­bia is found to be com­plicit in his dis­ap­pear­ance or death, the warm U.S.-Saudi re­la­tion­ship — and even hopes for Mid­dle East peace — could be up­ended.

A se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said Fri­day that the U.S. is in on­go­ing contact with Turk­ish and Saudi of­fi­cials about the case. The U.S. be­lieves it is es­sen­tial that Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties — with full, trans­par­ent sup­port from the Saudi gov­ern­ment — are able to con­duct a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion and of­fi­cially re­lease the re­sults, the of­fi­cial said.

The of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the of­fi­cial was not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly, said the U.S. sup­ports Turk­ish in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ ef­forts, will not pre­judge the out­come of the of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but stands ready to as­sist.

Trump said Thurs­day the U.S. had “in­ves­ti­ga­tors over there and we’re work­ing with Turkey” and Saudi Ara­bia. But he has pro­vided no de­tails.

Trump has backed Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man’s am­bi­tious cam­paign to mod­ern­ize the con­ser­va­tive king­dom and its econ­omy. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner, who ex­changes phone and text mes­sages with the young crown prince, was in­stru­men­tal in last year’s deal to sell US$110 bil­lion in U.S. weapons to the king­dom.

But even be­fore Khashoggi van­ished, con­cerns were mount­ing in Congress over Saudi Ara­bia’s poli­cies and the crown prince’s ag­gres­sive steps to si­lence his crit­ics. And now there are calls on Capi­tol Hill for the U.S. to halt arms sales to the king­dom, and Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance could gal­va­nize more op­po­si­tion from law­mak­ers and pres­sure Trump to re­think his re­la­tions with Saudi Ara­bia.

Trump on Thurs­day pro­nounced U.S. re­la­tions with Saudi Ara­bia “ex­cel­lent” and said he doesn’t want to scut­tle arms deals with Riyadh be­cause it means tens of mil­lions of dollars pour­ing into the U.S. econ­omy. He said the king­dom would sim­ply buy the weapons from Rus­sia or China in­stead.

“If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are cer­tainly other ways of han­dling this si­t­u­a­tion,” he said with­out elab­o­rat­ing.

Much of how the U.S. re­sponds will de­pend on whether ev­i­dence sur­faces that proves Saudi Ara­bia is re­spon­si­ble for Khashoggi’s death.

Trump will have to craft a “cal­i­brated re­sponse,” said Jon Al­ter­man, who di­rects the Mid­dle East pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies. “He doesn’t like that ap­proach. The pres­i­dent likes com­plete wins.”

The close ties be­tween the Trump White House and the king­dom were in part forged by a friend­ship be­tween two young princes: Last spring, Kush­ner and the crown prince met for­mally for the first time as a late-sea­son snow fell out­side the White House.

The two men — both in their 30s, both trusted aides of older, fa­mil­ial lead­ers — struck a bond. As their coun­tries’ chief ne­go­tia­tors on Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace, Kush­ner and the Saudi prince were both look­ing to make a name for them­selves on the world stage and con­sulted with each other over the fol­low­ing months.

LEF­TERIS PITARAKIS THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s courtship of Saudi Ara­bia is on pause over al­le­ga­tions that the key U.S. ally is in­volved in the mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance of a Saudi writer Ja­mal Khashoggi.

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