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U.S.-Saudi Relations Strain As Trump Promises Action Over Missing Journalist

FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 file photo, Saudi King Salman speaks during a meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Bilateral Coordination Council with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 file photo, Saudi King Salman speaks during a meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Bilateral Coordination Council with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool, File)
This article is more than 4 years old.

With Meghna Chakrabarti

President Trump vows severe punishment and sends Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with Saudi Arabia's King Salman as the rift grows over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


David Kirkpatrick, international correspondent for the New York Times. (@ddknyt)

Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and African Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. (@stevenacook)

Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Director of Princeton’s Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, and its Program in Near Eastern Studies.

Interview Highlights

On Turkey's role in all of this

David Kirkpatrick: "All that we know really about the details of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi has come from unnamed Turkish officials speaking to journalists, including myself. The information that they have provided is, at times, quite graphic, about his killing and dismemberment. They even leaked to the Turkish press, and to me, the names of 15 Saudis who they say flew in to Istanbul on two private jets that day for the purpose of killing Jamal Khashoggi. They have not disclosed their evidence to the public in detail. And they apparently have not disclosed it to Western intelligence services either, and that has raised a lot of questions about whether or not the Turkish authorities would be open to some kind of an accommodation with Saudi Arabia. That if Saudi Arabia were to say, 'All right, we acknowledge something horrible happened here and Jamal Khashoggi was killed, but we have an explanation that we would like to put forward,' will the Turks try to challenge that, or will they proceed in this case as partners with Saudi Arabia? Right now, that appears to be the way things are going."

On why this moment is being seen as a potential turning point in U.S.-Saudi relations

Steven A. Cook: "I think there are three reasons why this is such a big story and why commentators are saying this is a potential juncture in U.S.-Saudi relations. One is that Jamal Khashoggi was a columnist for the Washington Post, the hometown newspaper for people who make the news and spend a lot of time thinking about the news. The allegations against Saudi Arabia are grisly, so it has created a sense of outrage and fear among the many journalists who work inside the Beltway who have spent a lot of time around the world. I think the second reason why it's become such a big story is that the Trump administration, for better or worse, has really identified itself with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman. Now, American presidents have long had special relationships with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has long been a pillar of U.S. foreign policy, but there is something about the current political environment and the president and the president's outreach to Saudi Arabia, and the crown prince, where there is a certain political aspect to what's going on. And then finally, I think most consequentially, is if in fact this was a brutal, grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul consulate of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and ordered by the crown prince, it raises questions about the leadership of Saudi Arabia, about their ability to think through the consequences of their actions, or how much control they have over what's going on."

"I think it's abundantly clear that the president is in an awkward position and his inclination is actually to continue the relationship with Saudi Arabia uninterrupted."

Steven A. Cook

On the Trump administration's relationship with Saudi Arabia

Bernard Haykel: "You probably know that the first overseas trip that President Trump took was to Riyadh, where he was feted and received as a great international statesman, and he seemed to appreciate that a lot. And then a special relationship developed with the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to deal with a whole series of topics. One was the fight against ISIS and the counterterror campaign. The other was the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and lastly was the business and economic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. This was at a time when the Saudis were — and still are — reforming and diversifying their economy. They wanted to invest in the United States, they wanted to buy a lot of things from the U.S. and build strong connections with U.S. institutions — banks, universities, etc. So, that relationship is a very personal and tight one, and I think — and this is my speculation — I think that a significant amount of the attention and anger that has been directed at Saudi Arabia has to do with the feelings that many Americans feel about President Trump."

On where President Trump has been on this issue

SC: "The president has certainly been all over the place on this issue. As you point out, I think his statements have been an effort to provide time for the Turks and the Saudis to figure out a story. I think it's abundantly clear that the president is in an awkward position and his inclination is actually to continue the relationship with Saudi Arabia uninterrupted. I think that the statement about severely punishing the Saudis was something where the White House was acknowledging the pressure and the two weeks full of commentary about the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, but overall this is a president who has not made human rights a priority, and has looked upon Washington's relations with other countries — particularly countries in the Middle East and particularly Saudi Arabia — as very important for American commercial transactions. And he has mentioned an $110 billion arms deal, which actually was not struck by the Trump administration but was actually agreed to under the Obama administration, but signed after President Trump came into office."

From The Reading List

New York Times: "Jamal Khashoggi’s Disappearance: What We Know and Don’t Know" — "The disappearance of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi has set off a diplomatic feud between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, a bipartisan uproar in the United States Congress, tremors of uncertainty in Wall Street and Silicon Valley about how to deal with Saudi Arabia, and a noisy spat between the White House and its closest Arab ally.

"On Monday morning, President Trump said on Twitter that he had just discussed the case with King Salman, who denied any knowledge of what had happened to Mr. Khashoggi, and that he was 'immediately sending' Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with the king. Later, in brief remarks to reporters, he said that from his conversation with the king, 'it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers — who knows.' "

Foreign Policy: "Jamal Khashoggi’s Disappearance Is Even Stranger Than It Seems" --  "What in the world? No seriously, what the…? When it comes to Saudi Arabia these days, things could not get weirder or uglier. Last November, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman forced Lebanon’s Prime Minister to resign—from Riyadh in a television appearance that had all the characteristics of a hostage video. At the same time, Saudi authorities detained almost 400 people in the Ritz-Carlton over corruption charges, only to release them after they handed over significant sums of cash and assets in what appeared to be little more than a shakedown. This past spring and summer, the government began arresting women activists, some of whom had been at the forefront of the decades-long fight to drive that ended with a lift on the ban in June, and declared them traitors. Then, in August, Saudi leaders lashed out at Canada over a tweet criticizing their treatment of oppositionists—canceling flights, preventing Saudi students on government scholarship from studying at Canadian universities, and transferring sick Saudis from Canada’s hospitals. All of this was going on against the backdrop of the ill-conceived war in Yemen."

CNN: "Pompeo meets Saudi King as Khashoggi family calls for inquiry into 'death'" — "US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks with top Saudi leaders Tuesday as sources told CNN that the Kingdom is preparing to acknowledge that missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi died at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

"Pompeo had a short discussion with King Salman before a longer meeting with the King's son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Pompeo 'thanked the King for his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent, and timely investigation' of the Khashoggi case and expressed 'concern' about the case to the foreign minister."

This article was originally published on October 16, 2018.

This program aired on October 16, 2018.


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