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Trump’s gamble on MBS looks worse by the day

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 07/12/2018 Ishaan Tharoor
Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud wearing a hat © Marcos Brindicci/

More than two months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the Trump administration is desperate to sweep the whole episode under the rug. It won’t be easy.

On Wednesday, Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president and current U.N. high commissioner for human rights, became the latest voice to call for an international investigation into his killing. “I do believe it is really needed in terms of ensuring what really happened and who are the [people] responsible for that awful killing,” she said at a news conference in Geneva.

The possibility of an outside inquiry into the affair has also been floated by Turkish authorities, who are still pursuing their own investigation. As my colleague Kareem Fahim reported on Wednesday, a Turkish court issued arrest warrants for two officials close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri and Saud al-Qahtani. The new Turkish arrest warrants, noted Fahim, appeared to be part of an effort to “pressure Saudi Arabia to reveal more details about Khashoggi’s killing, as well as to isolate the crown prince.”

The Saudis owned up to Khashoggi dying under their watch only after weeks of obfuscation. Both the aides targeted by the Turkish court were relieved of their posts, while 18 others allegedly involved in the killing were reported to have been arrested. Qahtani numbered among the 17 Saudi officials sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for their roles in the abduction and murder of Khashoggi — a contributor to The Washington Post’s Opinions section and a critic of the leadership in Riyadh.

But there’s a growing sense that the killing of Khashoggi reflects, rather than an aberration, a wider pattern of Saudi behavior that has become all the more apparent with rise of the young Mohammed. It emerged on Thursday that Qahtani, widely seen as Mohammed’s enforcer, was also allegedly involved in the torture of at least one Saudi female activist detained this year during a wider crackdown on civil society.

A file picture of  US President Donald Trump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. © AP Photo/Evan Vucci A file picture of US President Donald Trump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudis are still hoping to ride out the storm. Last week, Mohammed carried out something of a comeback tour through a number of Arab countries; he then endured a mixed reception at the Group of 20 Summit in Buenos Aires, where a prosecutor even weighed pursuing the Saudi heir to the throne for his government’s alleged war crimes in Yemen.

“The global debate around Saudi Arabia’s abuses and MBS’s role in Khashoggi’s killing is not likely to disappear soon,” Sarah Yerkes, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program, wrote, referring to the prince by his initials. “But this tour . . . made clear that MBS is back to business as usual.”

This week, Khalid bin Salman — Mohammed’s brother and the Saudi ambassador to the United States — returned to Washington for the first time since news of the journalist’s murder convulsed the capital. “The return of Prince Khalid suggests that Riyadh thinks the crisis is over,” Simon Henderson, a Saudi Arabia expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said to my colleague John Hudson. “Congress probably has a different view.”

Indeed, Trump has failed to stave off a growing insurrection among even Republican lawmakers in Congress. Senators emerged from a closed-door hearing with CIA Director Gina Haspel on Tuesday seething with rage at a White House that seems bent on helping Riyadh cover up its tracks. “There’s not a smoking gun — there’s a smoking saw,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said, referring to the grisly tool possibly used to dismember Khashoggi’s body.

The following day, a bipartisan group of senators filed a resolution condemning the crown prince for complicity in Khashoggi’s death. In a statement accompanying the release, Graham called Mohammed a “wrecking ball to the region jeopardizing our national security interests on multiple fronts.” He added: “It will be up to Saudi Arabia as to how to deal with this matter. But it is up to the United States to firmly stand for who we are and what we believe.”

Trump, however, has taken a very different stance. He shrugged at the CIA’s own conclusion that the crown prince presided directly over Khashoggi’s killing. In a statement last month, he chalked up Khashoggi’s death to the “dangerous” times we live in, engaged in casual slander of the slain journalist by linking him to an outlawed Islamist faction, and insisted that the U.S.-Saudi relationship was far too important to be compromised by one “tragic event.”

Trump’s defense of Saudi Arabia is puzzling. There’s little electoral logic in pandering to Riyadh: Before November 2016, Trump was a vehement, if ill-informed, critic of the Saudi kingdom. His administration has artificially inflated the economic value of Saudi Arabian arms sales in a bid to justify turning a blind eye to Khashoggi’s killing.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been even more outspoken, mocking the “caterwauling” of Mohammed’s detractors in Washington and pointing to the supposed greater threat of Iran as a reason to look beyond the assassination of a Post writer.

The president’s loyalty to the crown prince looked even more conspicuous after reports, including from my colleagues, pointed to the Saudis pouring vast sums of money into Trump Organization properties since Trump came to power. These pecuniary concerns underscore the extent to which Trump is indeed a “transactional” president, willing to sacrifice principle for what is, in this case, personal gain.

But it has helped make Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia an easy target for his critics — and it helps create distance between the American president and many of his political allies. “Washington has grown to detest the Saudi crown prince,” Middle East expert Steven Cook wrote in an op-ed for Foreign Policy, “because he represents a world that seems to be spinning out of control.”

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