Jamal Khashoggi’s Death Made The Saudi Crown Prince A Pariah. Trump Has Helped Rehabilitate Him On The World Stage
By Shane Harris and John Hudson
At the annual Group of 20 gathering of world leaders in Osaka, Japan, in June, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, beamed before cameras as he stood center stage between President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a carefully choreographed group photo. He grinned as he sat with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And he shook hands joyously with South Korean President Moon Jae-in after the two countries struck agreements and contracts worth $8.3 billion.
The world leaders’ embrace of Mohammed was a clear signal that the young prince, who the CIA, U.S. allies and a United Nations investigator say is responsible for the savage killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was being welcomed back, if reluctantly, into the community of nations. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Trump and his secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
Wednesday will mark one year since Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents in that country’s consulate in Istanbul. Mohammed, who rose to power promising transformational social and economic change in one of the world’s most strategically important countries, and who was praised by prominent writers and American executives as heralding a bright future for Saudi Arabia, quickly became a pariah.
Trump and Pompeo, however, never distanced themselves. They emphasized the kingdom’s strategic importance. For Trump, the value of that relationship boiled down to dollars. He has never sugarcoated the grisly nature of the slain columnist’s death. But he has repeatedly described the Middle East as a “vicious” place, excusing Khashoggi’s death as an unfortunate event not worth the cost of abandoning a lucrative market.
“I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them,’ ” Trump told NBC News in July. “And by the way, if they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese.”
Pompeo, who has not been so blunt, has made public promises that the United States would investigate Khashoggi’s death and hold all responsible parties accountable. After a meeting with the Saudi king and crown prince in January, Pompeo said they “reiterated their commitment to achieve the objective, the expectations we set for them.”
Those promises remain unfulfilled.
“To all appearances, Pompeo’s strategy right from the beginning has been to salvage the U.S.-Saudi relationship and rehabilitate Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation in Washington as a valuable ally against Iran,” said David Ottaway, a Gulf expert at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.
“U.S. and Saudi officials have been playing the same game of hoping the controversy over Jamal’s murder will die with time or be overtaken by other more immediate events, like the brazen Iranian drone-and-missile attack on Saudi oil facilities” this month, Ottaway said. In response to those attacks, which U.S. officials say emanated from Iran, Trump ordered U.S. troops to defend Saudi oil fields.
Pompeo has arguably succeeded in his goal of stabilizing the U.S.-Saudi relationship and bringing Mohammed back into the fold. Headlines about Khashoggi’s killing have faded. A trial of Saudi officials, called a mockery of justice by observers, carries on behind closed doors.
Mohammed has been on his own public relations tour. In a recent interview with PBS, he took responsibility for the killing as the leader of his country but made no admission about his suspected role.
“I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch,” Mohammed said, according to a preview of the interview, which has not been broadcast yet. On Sunday night, an interview with Mohammed is set to air on “60 Minutes.”
State Department officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, defended Pompeo by pointing to the visa restrictions he ordered last year on 21 individuals connected to Khashoggi’s slaying and, as one official said, the secretary’s push for “a fair and transparent judicial process without undue delay.”
The visa restrictions ensure that the 21 individuals may not travel to the United States, a punishment lampooned by critics as pointless given the unlikelihood that any of the suspects would risk doing so. Neither the Saudi government nor the White House responded to requests for comment.
A Saudi dissident living in the United States who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a fear of retaliation, said the Saudi government weathered the furor over Khashoggi’s killing because the Trump administration stood by Mohammed.
“I think they got away with murder,” the dissident said.
A trial held in secret
The Trump administration has done little to shed light on Saudi Arabia’s opaque system of justice. One year after Khashoggi’s death, not a single Saudi official has been found guilty or punished.
A trial of 11 Saudi officials, which began in early January, drags on. Journalists and the public have been barred. Foreign diplomats have been allowed to attend, on the condition they do not disclose details from the proceedings. They include representatives from the United States and other U.N. Security Council members, along with Turkey, according to Saudi officials.
The Saudi government has not named the defendants. Agnes Callamard, a human rights expert at the United Nations, obtained a list from government sources that included Maher Mutreb, a Saudi intelligence officer, Salah al-Tubaigy, an autopsy specialist who is accused of dismembering Khashoggi’s body, and Ahmed al-Assiri, the former deputy chief of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency. Five of the defendants, including Mutreb and Tubaigy, are said to be facing the death penalty, according to Callamard’s report on Khashoggi’s killing, which was released in June.