It’s been a year since Khashoggi’s murder. Trump has stopped pretending to care | Mohamad Bazzi

Saudi Arabias dismal record isnt deterring Mnuchin, Kushner and a flock of executives from attending Davos in the desert

A year after Saudi agents murdered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Donald Trumps administration is eager to rehabilitate the reputation of the kingdoms brutal crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. This week, Steven Mnuchin, the US treasury secretary, and Jared Kushner, the presidents son-in-law and senior adviser, will attend a lavish investment conference in the Saudi capital intended to burnish the princes image as a reformer.

The conference, nicknamed Davos in the desert, is expected to draw dozens of US and western business executives who stayed away from last years gathering, which took place only weeks after Khashoggis assassination inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Last year the CIA concluded, with high confidence, that Prince Mohammed had ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and US resident.

But today, the Trump administration and Wall Street executives are sending a clear message: Saudi Arabia is open for business, and US firms dont want to miss out on billions of dollars being dangled by Saudi leaders. Theyre hoping that the international outrage over Khashoggis murder and the kingdoms human rights record has died down, and that there wont be a political cost to attending the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh.

Mnuchin and Kushner are scheduled to take part in panel discussions during the three day conference, which runs from 29 to 31 October. Top executives from JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, BlackRock, Blackstone and other financial firms will also attend.

Prince Mohammed and his advisers have been wooing these banks with the prospect of underwriting the worlds largest initial public offering. The prince has promised to sell a portion of the state-owned oil monopoly, Saudi Aramco. US and European bankers could earn fortunes in fees.

After Khashoggis murder, US and European firms did not stop doing business with Saudi Arabia, though many kept a low profile. But Trump and members of his administration especially Kushner, who became friends with Prince Mohammed soon after Trump took office never wavered in their support for the Saudi regime. Trumps support signaled to other world leaders and business executives that they could continue working with Saudi Arabia, albeit quietly. Mnuchin withdrew from last years summit; this year the Trump administration has dropped even the pretense of protest.

When he toured the US in the spring of 2018, Prince Mohammed was treated like a rock star. The prince met Silicon Valley titans, Wall Street financiers and Hollywood royalty on a three-week, cross-country tour. He was celebrated as a reformer committed to modernizing the repressive kingdom.

But the princes record was always clear. After his fathers ascension as king in 2015, Prince Mohammed consolidated power, removing his rivals and extending unprecedented control over the security establishment. He launched a disastrous war against Houthi rebels in Yemen and cracked down on internal dissent. Yet politicians and business executives in the west continued to praise the young prince. They were eager for investments from the kingdoms $320bn sovereign wealth fund, which Prince Mohammed controls.

Whether from naivety or self-interest, the western political class often mistakes a leaders interest in technology and entrepreneurship as support for political reform. But as Prince Mohammed has shown, a leader can invest billions of dollars in Uber and still maintain a police state.

Since he rose to power, Prince Mohammed has presided over a series of destructive policies that destabilized the Middle East. The Saudi-led war in Yemen has killed tens of thousands of civilians; instigated the worlds worst humanitarian crisis; and implicated the United States, Britain and France in likely war crimes. The kingdom has imposed a blockade against its smaller neighbor, Qatar; and the prince ordered the arrests of hundreds of activists and political opponents. Those internal dissidents have received far less attention because theyre not as well known or connected as Khashoggi.

Despite the princes dismal record, US business executives still couch their dealings with Saudi Arabia as an attempt to promote reform. Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, pulled out of last years conference after Khashoggis murder. But he attended another conference in Saudi Arabia in April; his firm recently opened an office there; and he plans to attend this weeks summit.

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was horrifying, Fink wrote on LinkedIn in April. He argued that corporate engagement and public dialogue could help the kingdom undertake reform. As I have said repeatedly to Saudi leaders, for Saudi Arabia to be on the world stage, it must act like a world leader.

But its naive and hypocritical of business executives to think that the presence of foreign companies will change Prince Mohammeds regime. The prince and his advisers have made it clear that they can withstand international condemnation as long as they have leverage over those who do business with Saudi Arabia.

At least Trump doesnt bother with niceties about reform and rule of law. Last October, Trump was asked whether he would cancel billions of dollars in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia if its leaders were implicated in Khashoggis murder. The president responded: We dont like it even a little bit. But whether or not we should stop $110bn from being spent in this country That would not be acceptable to me.

Trump dropped any pretext that the US-Saudi alliance is more than a transactional relationship based on maintaining weapons deals, stable oil prices and regional security interests. After all: why would he isolate the reckless crown prince and lose sales to Americas largest weapons buyer?

  • Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University, is a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran

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