On June 22, Kushner—who previously worked in his family’s New York real estate development company—unveiled his proposal. Entitled “Peace to Prosperity,”
The Wooing of Jared Kushner: How the Saudis Got a Friend in the White House
Prince Mohammed bin Salman with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in Riyadh last year.
Senior US officials were worried. Since the early days of the Trump administration, Jared Kushner, the Middle East’s president’s son-in-law and adviser, has had private and informal conversations with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the King’s favorite son of Saudi Arabia.
Given Kushner’s political inexperience, private exchanges could make him vulnerable to Saudi manipulation, three former US officials said. In an effort to reinforce White House practices, a new chief of staff has attempted to reinstate longstanding procedures that stipulate that National Security Council personnel must participate in all appeals with foreign leaders.
Despite the current restrictions, 37-year-old Kushner and 33-year-old Prince Mohammed continued to chat, three former White House officials and two others told by the Saudi royal court. In fact, the two men were called by name. They called each other Jared and Mohammed by SMS and phone calls.
The talks continued even after the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was ambushed and dismembered by Saudi agents on October 2, according to two former US officials and the two people informed by the Saudis.
While the assassination triggered a firestorm around the world and US intelligence agencies concluded that he had been ordained by Prince Mohammed, Mr. Kushner became the Prince’s most important defender at home. Blanche, said people familiar with their internal deliberations.
Mr. Kushner’s support for Prince Mohammed at the time of the crisis is a striking demonstration of a unique bond that has drawn President Trump to Saudi Arabia, one of his most important allies International.
But the ties between Mr. Kushner and Prince Mohammed were not created by themselves. The Prince and his advisers, eager for US support for their aggressive policies in the region and their own consolidation of power, have maintained the relationship with Mr. Kushner for more than two years, according to documents, e-mails and revised SMS. By the New York Times.
The documents show that, according to the documents, a delegation of Saudis close to the prince went to the United States from the month Mr. Trump was elected. He presented a report identifying Mr. Kushner as a crucial central point in the new government’s parade. . The delegation stated that it provided little knowledge of the region, a transactional mentality and an intense approach to reaching an agreement with the Palestinians who complied with Israel’s demands.
Even then, before the inauguration, the Saudis have tried to position themselves as essential allies who could help the Trump government to keep its election promises. In addition to helping resolve the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, the Saudis have offered hundreds of billions of dollars to buy US weapons and invest in their infrastructure. Later, Trump announced versions of some of these articles with great admiration during his first trip abroad: at an Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The Saudis launched this invitation during the delegation’s visit in November 2016.
“The restricted circle is made up mainly of businessmen who do not know the political customs and deep institutions and who support Jared Kushner,” the Saudi delegation wrote about the new administration obtained by the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar. , who provided it to Times. Several Americans who spoke with the delegation confirmed the slide presentations of the discussions.
Mr. Kushner’s court seems to have worked.
Only a few months after Trump’s move to the White House, Kushner asked questions about the succession process in Saudi Arabia and asked if the US could influence it, raising fears among senior officials to try to help Prince Mohammed, the Crown Prince, leaping forward in line for the throne, declared two former high officials of the White House. US diplomats and intelligence officials feared that the Trump government would be considered a favorite in the sensitive domestic politics of the Saudi royal family, officials said.
(After the publication, a senior White House official said in a statement: “The implications that Jared has put on the possibility of influencing Saudi Arabia’s succession process are false”).
In March, Mr. Kushner helped Prince Mohammed attend an official lunch with Mr. Trump in a White House dining room, taking advantage of a last minute cancellation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel because of a snow storm.
In March 2017, Mr. Kushner helped the Prince at an official luncheon with Mr. Trump at the White House.
According to one person involved in the arrangements, Mr. Kushner organized the flexion protocol so that Prince Mohammed, often referred to as Mr.B.S., received the type of treatment generally reserved for heads of state, with photographs and media. It seems to be the first face-to-face meeting between Mr. Kushner and the Prince, but Mr. Kushner made a face by telling other people in the White House that Prince Mohammed and he had already spoken to him several times previously, two people in the office. White House. event recalled.
In a statement, a White House spokesman said, “Jared has always meticulously followed protocols and guidelines regarding relations with MBS and all other foreign officials with whom he has relationships.”
White House officials refused to explain these protocols and guidelines, and to comment on Mr. Kushner’s personal communications with Prince Mohammed since the assassination of Mr. Khashoggi.
However, their connection has been fundamental since the beginning of the Trump administration.
“The relationship between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman is the basis of Trump’s policy not only for Saudi Arabia, but also for the region,” said Martin Indyk, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Middle East envoy. East. Does the government’s confidence in the Saudis in the peace process, its support for the kingdom’s enmity with Qatar, an ally of the United States, and its support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, do they stated, everything comes from “this joke”.
“You will love it”
Prior to the 2016 presidential race, Kushner’s largest exhibition in the Middle East was Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a friend of the Kushner family. The Kushners had contributed greatly to Israeli non-profit organizations that support Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank.
But the Arab leaders of the Persian Gulf, rich in oil, figured mainly in Kushner’s life as investors in US real estate, the family business of Kushner.
For example, Tom Barrack, a Lebanese-American real estate investor with close ties to Trump and the Gulf leadership, proposed during the campaign to introduce Kushner to his associates as a useful ally.
“You will love it and agree with our agenda!” Barrack wrote in May 2016 in an email to the emirate of the Emirates in Washington, Youssef Otaiba.
Tom Barrack, a Lebanese-American real estate investor with close ties to Trump and Gulf leaders.
Mr. Otaiba quickly positioned himself as an informal consultant in Mr. Kushner’s area.
“Thanks to you, I’m in constant contact with Jared and this has been a great help,” Otaiba wrote to Barrack during the first few months after taking office.
The ambassador of the United Arab Emirates also promoted Prince Mohammed with enthusiasm. Since the prince’s eldest father took the throne in 2015, the Emirati have been betting heavily on the prince as their favorite in the Saudi royal family’s succession fights.
“The MBS is incredibly impressive,” Otaiba wrote to Barrack in June 2016 as they attempted to hold meetings between the Prince and the Trump campaign.
A month after the US elections, the sovereign of the United Arab Emirates factions, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, issued a similar message when he went unexpectedly to New York for a meeting with Mr. Kushner. and others. on the subject. Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
When he met with Mr. Kushner, the Emirati prince also recommended to Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia a promising young leader, according to a person close to his conversations.
Mr. Kushner seemed impressed. The meeting was organized in part by Rick Gerson, a hedge fund manager close to Mr. Kushner and the Crown Prince of the Emirates. After the meeting, Mr. Gerson sent a message to the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates about his success in the conquest of Mr. Kushner.
“I promise you this will be the beginning of a special and historic relationship,” Gerson wrote in a text message.
On the eve of the inauguration, Mr. Gerson wrote again to the Crown Prince of the Emirates.
“You have a real friend at the White House,” Gerson wrote, recounting a visit to Kushner before Kushner left for Washington.
Emails with Ambassador Otaiba and SMS with Mr. Gerson were provided to the Times by UAE foreign policy critics and authenticated by others who knew their content directly. Mr. Gerson declined to comment and the UAE Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
“Lack of familiarity” with the story
Saudi Arabia’s senior advisors to Prince Mohammed also met with Kushner during a trip to New York in November 2016, after the elections.
The Saudi team included Musaad al-Aiban, a minister responsible for economic planning and national security, and Khaled al-Falih, installed by the prince as energy minister and chairman of the state-owned oil company, according to their leaders. and a person informed of meetings. Mr. Aiban did not respond to a request for comment and Mr. Falih could not be contacted for comment.
Khaled al-Falih was part of a team of key collaborators of the prince who met Mr. Kushner in New York in November 2016.
“Kushner has clearly expressed his lack of knowledge of the history of US-Saudi relations and asked him to support terrorism,” said the team in a slide show prepared for Riyadh. “After the discussion, he expressed appreciation for what was explained about Saudi Arabia’s role in the fight against terrorism” and what the Saudis said to be their international leadership in the fight against Islamist extremism .
According to the Saudi report, Kushner also questioned the motives of the delegation, asking if the group had always been interested in working with Mr. Trump. As a candidate, Mr. Trump had promised to ban the entry of Muslim immigrants into the United States and had designated Saudi Arabia as a dangerous influence.
“Kushner questioned Saudi Arabia’s desire to become a partner and whether it was an opportunity or concern, and also asked if this was specific to the US administration or ‘he had been introduced to Hillary Clinton (for example: women driving),’ he read on another slide. , next to a picture of Mr. Kushner.
But according to Kushner, his priorities were clear. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of the most important issues to attract Kushner’s attention,” said the delegation, thus constituting the best way to win it.
“The Palestinian question first: there is still no clear plan for the US administration with regard to the Middle East,” said the delegation, “except that the central interest is to find a solution to support Israel’s stability and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ” “
In order to maintain links with Trump’s team, the Saudis had prepared a long list of initiatives they thought would help Trump meet his supporters.
Taking advantage of Trump’s campaign votes for “scrutiny” of immigrants, the Saudi delegation proposed “to establish an exchange of information and data” to help the US administration carry out its strategy investigation of the applicants. of residence (scrutiny) to an Arabic version of a presentation for the Trump team.
And the delegation promised “high-level coordination with the new US administration” to help “defeat extremist thinking”.
Several Saudi proposals were obviously welcome.
One of them was a “common center of struggle against the ideology of extremism and terrorism”. President Trump helped inaugurate a Saudi version of the center during his trip to Riyadh the following May.
Another Saudi proposal described what the Trump government later called “an Arab NATO”. In his presentation, the Saudis described it as an Islamic military coalition of tens of thousands of soldiers “ready for the deployment of the elected president.”
Mr. Trump’s first term seemed planned. He planned to spend $ 50 billion over four years on US defense contracts, increase Saudi investment in the United States to $ 200 billion over four years, and invest in other Gulf states up to $ 100 billion. billions of dollars in US infrastructure.
And the delegation urged Trump to come to Saudi Arabia to “launch the initiatives as part of a historic welcome celebration.”
The Al Akhbar newspaper, which includes the Lebanese movement backed by Iranian Hezbollah and Iran, an enemy of Saudi Arabia, did not fully understand how the delegation of the delegation for and on the Trump team got the slides .
Several Americans identified in the presentation acknowledged the meeting with the delegation and confirmed the broad outlines of the discussions. The Times provided the documents and names of the members of the delegation to an official at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, who declined to comment.
A Saudi role in the peace of the Middle East
Israel had long told American diplomats that Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region made it essential for any peace deal, and the Israelis held high hopes for Prince Mohammed because of his aggressive stance towards Iran and his general iconoclasm. (Later, he would make several statements). , how to assert the Israeli “right” to the land, which was visibly much more favorable to the Israeli position than those of other Saudi leaders).
A few weeks after Trump’s move to the White House, Mr Kushner accepted the delegation’s proposal that the president should go to Riyadh, convinced that the alliance with Saudi Arabia would be crucial in his plans for the future. region, according to a person who discussed it with Mr. Kushner and a second person aware of his plans.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson opposed this idea. It would tie the administration too much to Riyadh, they said, giving up flexibility and influence. Mr. Trump also initially found little benefit, according to one person involved in his deliberations.
But at the time of inauguration, Kushner has already argued that, under the influence of Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia could play a key role in promoting a Middle East peace agreement, according to three people who know his thoughts well. That would be the legacy of the president, said Kushner, according to one person involved in the talks.
It was around the time of the White House visit in March 2017 that senior State Department and Pentagon officials began to worry about individual communications between Prince Mohammed, known for his preference for the WhatsApp online messaging service, and Mr. Kushner. “There was a risk that the Saudis would play it,” said a former White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Two further talks with Mr. Kushner preceded the decisive moments of the consolidation of Prince Mohammed’s power.
Shortly after his visit to Riyadh with President Kushner in May 2017, Prince Mohammed orchestrated the expulsion of his eldest cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, by removing him from the control of the Ministry of the Interior. Saudi and replacing him as crown prince. . Prince Mohammed has also announced a Saudi-led blockade to his neighbor and rival Qatar, host of a major US air base.
A few days after Kushner’s unexpected visit to Riyadh in the fall of 2017, the Crown Prince summarily arrested some 200 Saudis, including several of his royal cousins, at a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. .
After every game for power, President Trump publicly congratulated Prince Mohammed.
Protesting the murder of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month.
A former White House official argued that Mr. Kushner’s personal ties to Prince Mohammed had sometimes been an advantage. At one point, for example, the struggle of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen blocked a critical port by cutting off humanitarian and medical supplies. Lieutenant-General HR McMaster, a national security adviser at the time, suggested that Kushner call on Prince Mohammed to solve the problem, the official said, adding that Kushner’s intercession contributed to persuade the Saudis to relax the restrictions.
White House officials also said Kushner had official conversations with many other leaders in the region. And previous administrations have also had close ties with the Saudi government.
Since the tumult of Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, the Trump government has acknowledged only one conversation between Mr. Kushner and Prince Mohammed: a phone call of October 10, accompanied by John R. Bolton, security advisor national. The Americans “asked for more details and that the Saudi government is transparent in the investigation process,” said the White House in a statement.
But US officials and a Saudi Arabian informed of their talks said Kushner and Prince Mohammed had continued to speak informally. According to the Saudi, Mr. Kushner gave the Crown Prince advice on how to deal with the storm, urging him to resolve his conflicts in the area and avoid further embarrassment.
Few Saudi promises have been numerous. The effectiveness of the counter-terrorism center in Riyadh remains unclear. After proposing $ 50 billion in new arms contracts, the Saudis only signed letters of interest or intent without any firm agreement. After proposing to raise up to $ 100 billion in investment in US infrastructure, the Saudis announced an investment of only $ 20 billion.
In the White House, Kushner continued to argue that the president should support Prince Mohammed, as he remains essential to the broader strategy of administration in the Middle East, according to people familiar with the deliberations .
However, it remains to be seen whether Prince Mohammed can fulfill this role. Their leaders rejected their initial moves towards the Palestinians and their resistance hardened after the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel without waiting for a negotiated settlement on the state of the city.
The prince’s father, 82-year-old King Salman, who is still the official head of the state, also appears to be resisting Kushner’s peace plans in the Middle East.
“The Palestinian question will remain our main theme,” said the king in a speech last month, “until the Palestinian people get all their legal rights.”