Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deliberately established a personal friendship with US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, using the latter’s interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promising to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in the United States, in order to court Kushner’s political support and White House influence, The New York Times reported Saturday.
Citing multiple former senior White House officials and other US and Saudi sources, the in-depth report said the friendship, which entailed first-name-basis informal chatting on WhatsApp that continued even after the widely condemned killing of Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi, worried officials in the State Department and the Pentagon, who feared Kushner was being manipulated.
Kushner has been the most steadfast defender in the White House of Riyadh in the wake of Khashoggi’s October 2 murder and dismemberment inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which US intelligence agencies have concluded was ordered by Prince Mohammed himself.
The Trump administration has publicly defended continued ties despite the killing.
The US president has condemned the brutal slaying as a “horrible crime … that our country does not condone.” But he rejected calls by many in Congress, including members of his own party, for a tougher response, and also dismissed reports from US intelligence agencies that Prince Mohammed must have at least known about such an audacious and intricate plot.
Last month, Trump told reporters that “foolishly canceling” arms sales to Saudi Arabia worth billions of dollars would only benefit Russia and China, which would be next in line to supply the weapons.
Critics denounced Trump’s statement, saying he was ignoring human rights and granting Saudi Arabia a pass for economic reasons.
According to the report, a delegation of Prince Mohammed’s associates visited Washington in November 2016, the month Trump was elected — when he wasn’t yet crown prince — and flagged Kushner as a crucial focal point, citing his lack of familiarity with Saudi Arabia and his intense focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Within months, Kushner had been courted to organize a formal meeting between Prince Mohammed and Trump, including honors normally reserved for heads of state.
That meeting had been organized while “bending protocol,” according to the report, a claim denied by the White House, which said Kushner had “always meticulously followed protocols and guidelines” regarding interactions with foreign officials.
Ultimately, Kushner was said to have helped catapult Mohammed bin Salman into the crown prince position, becoming the most influential leader in Riyadh at just 33 years old.
Prince Mohammed’s “bromance” with Kushner has been the “foundation of the Trump policy not just toward Saudi Arabia but toward the region,” the report quoted Martin Indyk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Middle East envoy and ambassador to Israel, as saying.
That included Riyadh’s inclusion in a yet-unpublished Israel-Palestinian peace plan and US support for a Saudi-led boycott of Qatar and for Riyadh’s interventions in the Yemen civil war.
It also led to Saudi help in implementing Trump’s strategy of extreme vetting of immigrants, including intelligence and data exchange, and cooperation in fighting Islamist terrorism and extremism via a center that has been inaugurated in Saudi Arabia.
Little has come so far of the Saudi promises to invest in US infrastructure and to sign huge contracts with Washington over four years for weapons and other products. Likewise, little headway has been made by the Saudis regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Ramallah rejecting Prince Mohammed’s approaches on behalf of Washington.
Last month, ABC News reported that Kushner in 2017 exaggerated the amount of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia in a bid to solidify the Trump administration’s alliance with the kingdom.
The report said Kushner directed the State Department and Pentagon to inflate the amount of arms exchanges between the two countries to $110 billion, a figure that current and former US officials said included potential deals. Actual sales have amounted to only $15 billion.
The extensive sales were touted as a major foreign policy achievement for the Trump administration, and were cited by the president as a key reason he would not punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of Khashoggi.
The Trump administration’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace is expected to be rolled out in the coming months.
But the plan is unlikely to be welcome by either side, especially with the Palestinian Authority boycotting the Trump administration since its recognition last year of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
The PA has vowed to oppose the so-called “deal of the century.” Israel’s shaky right-wing coalition government, meantime, is down to a majority of just 61 in the 120-seat Knesset after Avigdor Liberman resigned as defense minister last month to protest a Gaza ceasefire following a major flareup and took his party into the opposition.
Although the Trump administration has been long touting its peace plan, details of it have been scant, and the Palestinians have vowed not to cooperate with US efforts.
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.