Writer’s dis­ap­pear­ance a test for Trump’s son-in-law as the White House builds its Mid­dle East pol­icy. By Mark Lan­dler

Bangkok Post - - NEWS MAKER -

For Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who has made Saudi Ara­bia the ful­crum of his Mid­dle East pol­icy, the pos­si­ble mur­der of a Saudi jour­nal­ist in Turkey is a loom­ing diplo­matic cri­sis. For Mr Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner, it is a per­sonal reck­on­ing. More than any­one in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, Mr Kush­ner has cul­ti­vated Saudi Ara­bia’s crown prince, Mo­hammed bin Sal­man — whose fam­ily may have played a role in the dis­ap­pear­ance of the jour­nal­ist, Ja­mal Khashoggi — el­e­vat­ing the prince into a key ally in the Arab world and the White House’s pri­mary in­ter­locu­tor to the king­dom.

Mr Kush­ner cham­pi­oned Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, 33, when the prince was jock­ey­ing to be his fa­ther’s heir; had din­ner with him in Wash­ing­ton and Riyadh, the Saudi cap­i­tal; pro­moted a $110 bil­lion weapons sale to his mil­i­tary; and once even hoped that the fu­ture king would put a Saudi stamp of ap­proval on his Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace plan.

While the fate of Khashoggi, a res­i­dent of Vir­ginia and a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Post, re­mains un­clear, al­le­ga­tions that he was killed on the or­ders of the royal court have thrown Mr Kush­ner’s grand bet on the crown prince into doubt.

He may be less the risk-tak­ing re­former the Trump fam­ily ea­gerly em­braced than a reck­less, untested ruler, who crit­ics say has been em­bold­ened by his ties to the Trumps to take heavy-handed ac­tions at home and abroad.

US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have col­lected com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­ter­cepts of Saudi of­fi­cials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Ara­bia from his home in Vir­ginia and then de­tain him, ac­cord­ing to a for­mer se­nior US of­fi­cial.

The of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity, said it was in­con­ceiv­able that such a plan could be car­ried out with­out the ap­proval of the crown prince. The US in­ter­cepts were first re­ported by The Wash­ing­ton Post.

While it is pos­si­ble that such a plan in­volved as­sas­si­nat­ing Khashoggi, the of­fi­cial said, it is also pos­si­ble that a plan to trick Khashoggi into re­turn­ing to Saudi Ara­bia, or to tem­po­rar­ily in­ca­pac­i­tate and kid­nap him, went hor­ri­bly awry and re­sulted in his death.

Saudi lead­ers, in­clud­ing the crown prince, in­sist Khashoggi left the Saudi con­sulate in Istanbul on his own, and they do not know what hap­pened to him af­ter that.

But if it be­comes clear that the prince or­dered the as­sas­si­na­tion of Khashoggi or was con­nected to it in some way, it will pro­voke an out­cry on Capi­tol Hill; em­bar­rass US ex­ec­u­tives, dozens of whom are flock­ing to Riyadh for a con­fer­ence next week where the crown prince is sched­uled to speak; and put Mr Kush­ner, who was once him­self a news­pa­per pub­lisher, in an ex­tremely awk­ward po­si­tion.

Af­ter a week of ly­ing low, there is ev­i­dence the White House is turn­ing up the pres­sure on the Saudis. On Tues­day, the White House said, Mr Kush­ner and John R Bolton, the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, spoke to Mo­hammed bin Sal­man by phone about Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo also called him.

“In both calls, they asked for more de­tails and for the Saudi gov­ern­ment to be trans­par­ent in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion process,” said the White House press sec­re­tary, Sarah Huck­abee San­ders. Turkey is also rais­ing the pres­sure. On Wed­nes­day, Turk­ish of­fi­cials and a news­pa­per close to the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment iden­ti­fied 15 Saudis who they said were op­er­a­tives who flew to Istanbul last week in pur­suit of Khashoggi.

One of the men on the list pub­lished by the news­pa­per, Sabah, is an au­topsy ex­pert at Saudi Ara­bia’s in­ter­nal se­cu­rity agency, ac­cord­ing to the two Turk­ish of­fi­cials. An­other ap­pears to be a lieu­tenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force. The of­fi­cials, cit­ing con­fi­den­tial in­tel­li­gence, said all worked for the Saudi gov­ern­ment.

Mr Kush­ner de­clined to dis­cuss the state of his re­la­tion­ship with Mo­hammed bin Sal­man. Be­hind the scenes, a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said, he con­veyed a let­ter from the pub­lisher of The Post, Fred Ryan, to the crown prince, ex­press­ing con­cern for Khashoggi and ask­ing for his help. Mr Kush­ner has also taken other un­spec­i­fied steps, this per­son said.

Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said there were still too many unan­swered ques­tions to draw any con­clu­sions about what hap­pened in Istanbul. Mr Trump sig­nalled late on Wed­nes­day that he thought it was likely that the Saudis did kill Khashoggi and said that he would be up­set if it were con­firmed. “I would not be happy at all,” he said in an in­ter­view with Fox News. “I guess you would have to say so far it’s look­ing a

Even be­fore the murky events in Istanbul, Mr Kush­ner’s part­ner­ship with Mo­hammed bin Sal­man was run­ning into head­winds.

lit­tle like that.”

But the pres­i­dent ex­pressed re­luc­tance to pun­ish Saudi Ara­bia by cut­ting off arms sales, as some in Wash­ing­ton were propos­ing. “I think that would be hurt­ing us,” he said. “We have jobs, we have a lot of things hap­pen­ing in this coun­try.”

Even be­fore the murky events in Istanbul, Mr Kush­ner’s part­ner­ship with Mo­hammed bin Sal­man was run­ning into head­winds. Saudi Ara­bia re­buffed Mr Trump’s pleas to set­tle a bit­ter dis­pute with Qatar, its neigh­bour. Its arms pur­chases have fallen far short of the $110 bil­lion trum­peted by Mr Kush­ner, in part be­cause of re­sis­tance in Congress and in part be­cause that price tag was al­ways some­what ex­ag­ger­ated.

The prince’s fa­ther, King Sal­man, ruled out pub­lic sup­port for Mr Kush­ner’s peace plan af­ter Mr Trump’s de­ci­sion to recog­nise Jerusalem as the cap­i­tal of Is­rael — a move that alien­ated the Pales­tini­ans.

Re­ports of Khashoggi’s po­ten­tially grim fate have only fed the crit­i­cism from Repub­li­cans and Democrats on Capi­tol Hill, who have long been wary of Saudi re­li­gious ex­trem­ism and ties to ter­ror­ism.

IN TRA­DI­TIONAL GARB: Jared Kush­ner, cen­tre, looks on as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump met Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man of Saudi Ara­bia, at the White House in Wash­ing­ton, in March.

STATE SE­CRECY: A se­cu­rity guard walks in the Saudi con­sulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s courtship of Saudi Ara­bia is on pause amid the Saudi writer case.

KEY ALLY: Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

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