A year ago this month, Jared Kushner took an unannounced trip to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, to pay a visit to his friend Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, aka MbS. The two men had “forged a bond” since spending time together in Washington the previous March, speaking frequently on the telephone.
And why not? Aside from obvious differences—one was an Orthodox Jew, the other lived in a country where being an Orthodox Jew was illegal—they had much in common. They were about the same age, both ambitious, both the hidden powers behind their respective thrones, both men of wealth and taste. In Riyadh last October, the two stayed up until four in the morning, “swapping stories and planning strategy,” as David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post.
One of the “stories” swapped, apparently, was classified information compiled from the president’s daily brief, which Kushner reportedly consumed religiously. According to the Intercept:
“In June [of 2017], Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman ousted his cousin, then-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and took his place as next in line to the throne, upending the established line of succession. In the months that followed, the President’s Daily Brief contained information on Saudi Arabia’s evolving political situation, including a handful of names of royal family members opposed to the crown prince’s power grab, according to the former White House official and two U.S. government officials with knowledge of the report.”
During that October Riyadh getaway, Kushner reportedly proffered these names to MbS:
“What exactly Kushner and the Saudi royal talked about in Riyadh may be known only to them, but after the meeting, Crown Prince Mohammed told confidants that Kushner had discussed the names of Saudis disloyal to the crown prince, according to three sources who have been in contact with members of the Saudi and Emirati royal families since the crackdown. Kushner, through his attorney’s spokesperson, denies having done so.”
The result was what MbS has since termed an “anti-corruption crackdown,” but was really a purge of the disloyal. On November 4, soon after Kushner returned to Washington, MbS “arrested dozens of members of the Saudi royal family and imprisoned them in the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh,” per The Intercept. “The Saudi figures named in the President’s Daily Brief were among those rounded up; at least one was reportedly tortured.”
President Trump, who digs this sort of despotic muscle-flexing, tweeted out support of MbS.
“In the months that followed, the arrestees were coerced into signing over billions in personal assets to the Saudi government. In December, the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani had been tortured to death in the Ritz. Qahtani’s body showed signs of mistreatment, including a neck that was “twisted unnaturally as though it had been broken,” bruises, and “burn marks that appeared to be from electric shocks,” the New York Times reported.”
What might have prompted Kushner to give such information? We don’t know, but months after his visit with MbS, Charles Kushner, Jared’s father and business partner, secured a bailout for their albatross of a loan on the 666 Fifth Avenue property that was costing Kushner Properties millions. The deal, which went through in August, was with Brookfield Property Partners, which is funded in part by Qatar Investment Authority, which has direct ties to the government of Qatar.
Did MbS use his leverage to make the Qataris do the deal? Is that what he meant when he told the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed that Kushner was “in his pocket”? Or is it all a coincidence?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United States’ supposed ally, is one of the more repressive regimes going. Women are famously treated as second-class citizens. It is illegal to be gay, to speak ill of the kingly government, to not be Muslim. Capital punishment is meted out by beheading. Slavery was finally outlawed in the Kingdom in 1962, but still continues in the more remote desert regions. The House of Saud made a deal at the turn of the 20th century to link its fortunes to the puritanical and retrograde Wahhabi sect of Islam. The king allows the Wahhabi imams to dictate the way of life of his subjects, and in turn, the imams endorse the Saudi monarchy, who derive their Allah-given authority to rule from the imams. One hand washes the other.
Although a rich country, the bulk of the oil wealth there is controlled by the royal family and a small coterie of other sycophants. Mohammed bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s father, was one of these. The actual unemployment rate is something like 30 percent. Like too many petroleum exporters, Saudi Arabia produces nothing else of value the rest of the world wants. There is no flourishing art scene, no golden age of cinema, as in Iran. Outside the milquetoast royal family, the most famous Saudi nationals are arms dealers and terrorists: Iran-Contra figure Adnan Khashoggi, Osama bin Laden, and 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers.
By oppressing rather than cultivating the talents of most of its citizens, Saudi Arabia has squandered a unique opportunity to position itself for the future.
For decades, Saudi Arabia has functioned in much the same way: The Saudi people live under the iron fist of the religious extremists, but the real wealth is held by the elite. The royal family and the sycophants are observant Muslims while in the Kingdom. When they go to London, or Paris, or New York, however, the princes (usually it’s all men) enjoy a decadent Western lifestyle. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and what happens in Riyadh stays in Riyadh.
Thus, when rich Americans like Jared Kushner encounter Saudis, they are usually rich Saudis, Western in appearance and affectation. This creates a misleading impression of what the country is actually like. The operative word for the Saudi royal family is effete. All their sword-dancing and infidel-beheading can’t change the fact that their economy is based purely on a rapidly diminishing natural resource. Their society is decaying from within, much like the mind of King Salman, believed to suffer from dementia. By oppressing rather than cultivating the talents of most of its citizens, Saudi Arabia has squandered a unique opportunity to position itself for the future. Absent reforms, the West will have no use for Saudi Arabia when the oil is gone.
Enter Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Born in 1985, he’s a millennial, a contemporary of Jared Kushner as discussed, and unlike most of his family, highly ambitious. After executing the series of Machiavellian moves previously described to install himself as his father’s heir apparent—and, also, to relieve the disloyal of their assets—MbS set out to do what every previous king has failed at: diversify the economy. Saudi Arabia has money because Saudi Arabia has oil. He wants to take the money generated from the oil and invest it overseas. In 2016, MbS launched Saudi Vision 2030, which is not a fancy TV set but rather an ambitious plan to expand into nonpetroleum markets like health care, technology, entertainment, and tourism.
And he wants the West to perceive him as a reformer—as a “good guy,” a hero. To that end, he imposed a long-overdue series of modernizations: allowing women to drive, allowing women to attend sporting events, and restricting the powers of the religious police. These modest reforms are designed to stem the discontent in his own country and also to generate good optics in the U.S. and Europe.
Khashoggi was almost uniquely qualified to pull open the curtain on MbS’s “good guy” act.
Unfortunately, MbS is not all women’s driving permits and tech deals. He also has quite the dark side. He engineered the aforementioned Stalinesque purge of his rivals in the royal family. Human rights activities are subjected to greater persecution under his rule than previous regimes. He’s escalated diplomatic crises with Qatar and Lebanon. And his military intervention in Yemen has been devastating for the civilians there; the Saudi blockade of the country has been nothing short of an atrocity. The humanitarian crisis there will cause millions of innocent people to starve.
MbS seems to have all the hallmarks of a tyrant in the making—which endears him all the more to the current U.S. president, who has pledged his love for dictators Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin.
Donald Trump Jr. has participated in an attempt by the alt-right propaganda machine to portray Jamal Khashoggi, the slain Saudi journalist, as some sort of al Qaeda asset. Thankfully, this false narrative has not taken hold. In fact, Khashoggi was the general manager and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel, the editor for the Saudi newspaper Al Watan, and for years, enjoyed a cozy and collegial relationship with the royal family. His uncle was the late arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who once sold a yacht to Donald Trump, and his cousin, Dodi Fayed, famously perished in a car crash with Diana, Princess of Wales. He was not a gadfly; he was an insider—more Joe Scarborough than Michael Moore. Certainly he was no radical.
His status changed in 2016, when MbS assumed control. Khashoggi was critical of the crown prince, particularly his detention of the Saudi human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, and he vehemently opposed Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Khashoggi left Saudi Arabia last June and began writing for the Washington Post in September 2017. His criticisms have been severe. At a conference in March, he said:
“[MbS] doesn’t want any competition, any counter-opinions, any criticism. So he’s almost shut down everybody, and he’s moving ahead with his reform. When he arrested intellectuals last September, it was meant to silence everybody. The purge on corruption was planned to make everyone dependent on his mercy. If he succeeds, he will succeed alone. If not, maybe he will include the Saudi people in his reforms. I wish he could do that today, but right now he has all the power and the international community is not pressuring him on human rights.”
Khashoggi drew a lot of water inside the Beltway. People in Washington knew and respected him. He was almost uniquely qualified to pull open the curtain on MbS’s “good guy” act and expose the megalomaniacal madman inside. This is presumably why MbS sent a team of goons bearing bone saws to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where, as they now sort of admit after initial vehement denials, Khashoggi was killed during a “botched interrogation.” (That it required an entire soccer team of thugs to take on a single unarmed almost-60-year-old journalist only proves that the KSA is effete; Seal Team Six these guys are not).
Khashoggi was a prominent man from a prominent family, who was living in the United States, more or less seeking asylum. He now seems to have wound up literally chopped into pieces—by order of the de facto head of Saudi Arabia.
If MbS were the crown prince of, say, Mozambique, these actions would go largely unnoticed. But he is the heir apparent to the crown of Saudi Arabia, home to the world’s largest natural supply of oil.
This is not just about petrol, however. This is about capital investment, the highest of high finance. Already, MbS has his fingers in any number of pies in Hollywood, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. The Japanese entrepreneur Masayoshi Son, who got rich on Yahoo and Alibaba, runs the SoftBank Vision Fund, which Andrew Ross Sorkin described as “a front for Saudi Arabia and perhaps other countries in the Middle East.” SoftBank is the largest shareholder in Sprint PCS. Cadre, a real estate tech startup owned in part by Jared Kushner, approached the fund for financing, but the deal fell through amidst conflict of interest concerns. SoftBank also owns a stake in William Morris Endeavor (formerly known as WME-IMG). Endeavor represents any number of “above-the-marquee” artists and the NFL and NHL, and it owns outright the UFC and Miss Universe (which it acquired from Donald Trump).
There’s nothing wrong with MbS investing his money this way (although there is some irony in the fact that a Wahhabi-backed Saudi prince is one of the part owners of Miss Universe), although Khashoggi made a good point when he said:
“President Trump is wrong when he says that money is ‘peanuts’ to us. Saudi Arabia has a serious poverty problem — money is not ‘peanuts’ to us. To spend billions of dollars on military equipment is a serious thing. Today the Saudi Shura Council is talking about 35 or 40 percent unemployment — the official figure is 12 percent. So as much as Donald Trump is concerned about providing jobs for Americans, Mohammad bin Salman should be concerned about providing jobs for Saudis.”
In effect, Khashoggi criticized MbS for what Americans would call emoluments. The U.S. Constitution expressly forbids the president and other government officials from profiting from the office. (That Donald Trump violates the Emoluments Clause every day doesn’t make it right or constitutional.)
This is what makes the relationship between Jared Kushner and MbS so troubling.
At the moment, there is no U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Kushner serves as the de facto ambassador through his bromance with MbS. As the Washington Post reports:
Kushner’s unique role was evident a few weeks ago when White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly asked a question in an intelligence briefing about a sensitive policy matter related to Saudi Arabia in preparation for the crown prince’s visit. In response, intelligence briefers told him that virtually all of the conversations that U.S. officials had with the Saudis on the matter had been between Kushner and [MbS], according to several people familiar with the episode.
It was Kushner who lobbied for Trump to make Saudi Arabia his first official state visit. You will recall the risible optics from that ill-starred trip:
The more seasoned members of the administration did not want that visit. Trump was persuaded to go after hearing assurances that Saudi Arabia would ramp up its counterterrorism aid and buy more U.S. weapons.
The problem with Kushner’s direct involvement in foreign affairs is that when he and MbS pull an all-nighter, we don’t know if Kushner is representing the United States or his own business interests. The two do not necessarily align.
Furthermore, Kushner is not the most transparent fellow. Recall his clumsy attempt to establish a backchannel at the Russian embassy, and his sub rosa meeting with sanctioned VEB president Sergei Gorkov. West Wing staff often seem to have no inkling what he’s up to. He has done little to earn the trust of his colleagues, let alone the American people.
Certainly the initial Riyadh state visit has been a bust. The counterterrorism piece was dealt a major blow last summer. In June 2017, per the Washington Post:
intelligence fears about the situation in Saudi Arabia rose when Mohammed unseated his cousin and the heir apparent, Mohammed bin Nayef, a longtime U.S. ally against terrorism. Bin Nayef had become a target of terrorism as a result of helping America: In 2009, bin Nayef was injured when an al-Qaeda suicide bomber blew himself up near the prince. Bin Nayef ‘was the closest thing Saudi Arabia had to a genuine hero in this century,’ said Bruce Riedel, who served more than 30 years in the CIA. He said Mohammed’s elevation had removed from power ‘one of the preeminent counterterrorists today.’
Meanwhile, thanks to Rex Tillerson’s change to President Obama’s policy to not sell precision-guided military weapons to Saudi Arabia, those weapons the United States sold to the Saudis are being used to kill innocent civilians in Yemen.
The “arms deal” touted by President Trump this past week—$110 billion in proposed purchases, which he claims would go to Russia or China if we pull out of the deal—amounts to the United States providing weapons that the Saudis use on Yemeni children. Yes, it’s good for American companies. No doubt Auschwitz and Dachau were steady customers for the manufacturers of Zyklon B. At a certain point, ethics must trump profits.
The Saudi attempt at damage control in the wake of the Khashoggi assassination has been just as clumsy and ineffectual as the hit itself. First, Saudi Arabia issued a denial, employing the Trumpist technique of claiming the story was fake news. Trump himself participated in this charade, explaining that the king denied the charges and that he believed him; he suggested that unnamed “rogue killers” did the job.
Whether the audio recording of the assassination came from Khashoggi’s Apple Watch or from Turkish intelligence bugging the consulate, there seems to be no doubt of the authenticity of the recordings. Too, an enterprising photographer took a picture of what appears to be a cleaning crew arriving at the consulate in advance of the Turkish investigators. Reports came out of the Saudi hit squad bearing bone saws; MbS himself was mockingly called “Mohammed bone Saw.” But this was no laughing matter.
When titans of industry like Jamie Dimon, Ford, Steven Schwarzman, and Larry Fink canceled their participation in an upcoming financial forum in Saudi Arabia, MbS realized he could not simply deny what happened. Too much money was at stake. He does not want to risk being a pariah, like Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchs. The last thing MbS needs is for the civilized nations of the world to tell him, “Your money’s no good here.” Clearly the situation needs to be fixed.
CNN reported that Saudi Arabia was contemplating admitting that Khashoggi’s death was the result of a botched interrogation, although that statement has yet to be made official. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Trumpist puppet, is in Saudi Arabia now, making nice and presumably crafting a remotely credible cover story.
Meanwhile, the Turkish president Erdogan has suggested that there is evidence Khashoggi was murdered brutally at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. At this point, there seems to be no dispute of that.
“This is astounding,” Bill Browder said in a tweet. “We are all witnessing a cover-up in real time as the Saudi regime is debating what the best narrative would be for their extrajudicial killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi. Very similar to what Putin did with Sergei Magnitsky.” And the cover-up is being aided and abetted, shamefully, by the POTUS and his son-in-law.
Trump and Kushner both have skin in the game. First, Khashoggi was not banned from Saudi media for his criticisms of MbS, but rather for his criticisms of Donald Trump. More importantly, U.S. intelligence knew of a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia to arrest him, so the president and the de facto ambassador to Saudi Arabia must have also known. If they knew and did not share the information with Khashoggi, they are liable. Per the Washington Post:
Intelligence agencies have a ‘duty to warn’ people who might be kidnapped, seriously injured or killed, according to a directive signed in 2015. The obligation applies regardless of whether the person is a U.S. citizen. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident.
Again, Saudi Arabia has been less, not more, helpful as a counterterrorism partner under MbS. The big deal trumpeted by Trump involves arms being used to exterminate children. Why exactly are Trump and Kushner going to the mat for MbS? Is it to advance U.S. interests… or their own?
“For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia,” Trump tweeted. “Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!” Given that he still believes MbS’s advance knowledge of the Khashoggi murder is “fake news,” perhaps the president is not the most reliable narrator. Khashoggi, for his part, believed that MbS used the money from the shakedown of one of his deposed relations to finance that arms deal; the amount stolen from Alwaleed bin Talal was 400 billion riyals, which is just under 110 billion U.S. dollars—the amount of the arms deal.
Whatever the case, all three men—MbS, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump—certainly seem complicit in the execution of Jamal Khashoggi. The world media must uncover the true story, financial leaders must continue to shun Saudi Arabia until the issue is resolved, and Congress must investigate, immediately, the actions of Jared Kushner.