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US treasury secretary withdraws from Saudi forum as Khashoggi furor escalates

Oct 19 2018 05:30
Jennifer Jacobs and Toluse Olorunnipa, Bloomberg

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin withdrew from an investment conference in Riyadh as the Trump administration shifted course under increasing pressure to hold Saudi Arabia’s leaders accountable for the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mnuchin announced his change of plans after meeting at the White House with President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who was hastily dispatched to Saudi Arabia and Turkey on Monday.

Following a day of meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pompeo said the Saudi leaders understood the importance of producing a quick but thorough report on Khashoggi’s fate after entering the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on October 2. The secretary of state’s trip came amid reports that the US-based journalist was ambushed within the consulate by Saudi agents, then tortured, killed and dismembered.

Saudi rulers are considering blaming a top intelligence official close to Prince Mohammed for the apparent killing, the New York Times reported, citing three unidentified people with knowledge of Saudi plans.

“We made clear to them that we take this matter with respect to Mr. Khashoggi very seriously,” Pompeo told reporters at the White House after the meeting. The Saudis agreed, he said, adding that “they also assured me that they will conduct a complete, thorough investigation of all the facts surrounding Mr. Khashoggi and that they will do so in a timely fashion.”

Pompeo said that he recommended Trump give the Saudis and the Turkish government “a few more days” to investigate.

Bipartisan pressure 

The Trump administration faces growing bipartisan outrage in Congress over Saudi Arabia’s role in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Shortly after Pompeo’s remarks, Mnuchin said he was withdrawing from an investment conference hosted by the Saudi government, following an exodus of prominent executives amid the crisis. It wasn’t immediately clear if the Treasury Secretary had canceled plans to travel to the kingdom next week.

Mnuchin has reaffirmed his plans to participate in the Saudi investment conference as recently as Wednesday. He announced his withdrawal hours after UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox pulled out of the event.

“Mr. Khashoggi is dead,” Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told reporters at the Capitol, according to Voice of America News and others. “I don’t think the aliens abducted him. I don’t think he fell through a hole in the space-time continuum. I think he’s dead, and I think the Saudis killed him.”

While lawmakers are threatening to sanction the Saudi government, Trump, who has cultivated closer ties to the kingdom, has so far sought to downplay the incident. In his remarks Thursday, Pompeo stressed the long alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.

“They are an important strategic alliance of the United States and we need to be mindful of that as well,” he said.

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, has been urging Trump to stand by Prince Mohammed, arguing that the outrage over Khashoggi’s disappearance will pass as it has over other Saudi provocations such as kidnapping the prime minister of Lebanon, the Times reported, citing two unidentified people familiar with deliberations.

Distrust of Saudis

Lawmakers aren’t satisfied. In a tweet shortly after Pompeo’s remarks, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said: “Must not accept a strategic alliance with #SaudiArabia which requires our silence when they butcher a political critic.” He called for everyone responsible to be held accountable and for the US to “be clear on what is expected moving forward if they want to preserve our alliance.”

The stark differences between Congress and the administration underscore that Saudi Arabia enjoys far greater respect in the Oval Office than in the Capitol. Many lawmakers harbour a distrust of the kingdom dating back to its connection to the September 11 attacks. Its bloody involvement in Yemen’s civil war and interference in Lebanese politics have cost it further US support.

The Saudis, Pompeo said, assured him the investigation “will be transparent” and the results made publicly available. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Pompeo that his government is conducting its own investigation of what happened to Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to retrieve a document for his upcoming wedding.

“We do believe that between these two efforts a complete picture will emerge for what actually transpired here,” Pompeo said.

Khashoggi, who wrote critically about Prince Mohammed, hasn’t been seen since entering the consulate. Turkish officials have said he was murdered and dismembered within the building by Saudi agents who were waiting for him to arrive. Saudi officials have insisted Khashoggi left unharmed, without providing any evidence of the claim.

Defeats in Congress

Should Congress act against Saudi Arabia despite Trump’s reservations, it would mark yet another defeat in Washington for the kingdom. Just two years ago, Congress passed legislation allowing Saudi Arabia to be sued for its involvement in the September 11 attacks. Though the Saudi government wasn’t found to have had a formal role in the attacks, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, a fact not forgotten by lawmakers or the American public.

US options include expelling Saudi diplomats, securing a United Nations resolution criticizing the kingdom’s behavior, curtailing arms sales or enacting sanctions on Saudi officials, Kennedy said on Wednesday. Trump opposes canceling what he says is a $110bn arms deal with the kingdom that would create 500 000 US jobs.

Trump chose Saudi Arabia for his first overseas trip as president and he has rejected the idea of reassessing the US-Saudi relationship over Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Trump administration has made Saudi Arabia a linchpin of its Middle East policy, which seeks to isolate Iran financially and diplomatically. The Saudis have been a key partner in that effort, and Trump has defended the kingdom even as it engaged in a crackdown on members of the royal family and pursued the war in Yemen.

Yet Trump may soon face a second overwhelming vote to impose sanctions on a country with which the president has sought to improve relations. Last year, veto-proof majorities in Congress approved sanctions on Russia to punish its 2016 election interference, over Trump’s objections.

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