Travel Guides – How Saudi Arabia’s leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents

Joseph Westphal was wowed from the beginning. As President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2015, Westphal began paying common visits to the rising new energy within the royal court docket: the nation’s new protection minister, Mohammed bin Salman, favored son of King Salman.

As Westphal recollects his visits with the prince, they struck up a heat friendship from the beginning.

“First of all, we shared a really nice sense of humor,” mentioned Westphal. “I mean we, we laughed, we joked around. … It was just laughing about life, and talking about things that maybe happened to me or happened to him.”

More vital, Prince Mohammed, who is named MBS, was pledging to begin to rein within the nation’s spiritual police and grant higher rights to Saudi girls — steps that U.S. officers had lengthy been calling for. “Yes, absolutely,” Westphal replied when requested if he considered MBS on the time as an agent of change. “From the very beginning. Absolutely.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, left, shakes arms with the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Joseph Westphal, at a gathering with President Barack Obama, proper, in Riyadh in 2015. (Saul Loeb/AFP by way of Getty Images)

Westphal’s relationship with the younger Saudi prince is one glimpse into a much wider and, from as we speak’s perspective, unsettling phenomenon: the unusual and profitable courtship by MBS of America’s overseas coverage and company elite, presenting himself as a cultured reformer who was positioned to revolutionize his rigidly conservative nation.

The story of that courtship — and its embarrassing aftermath, as MBS’s ruthless crackdowns on dissent and his bloody army journey in Yemen grew to become ever extra obvious — is the topic of “The Rise of the Bullet Guy,” Episode 5 in Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast: “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.”

It is a courtship that got here to a ultimate, crashing and ignominious finish when, in October 2018, a so-referred to as Tiger Team of Saudi assassins brutally murdered the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — drugging him with illicit narcotics introduced from Cairo, suffocating him after which carving up his physique with a bone noticed and depositing his physique components in plastic baggage.

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It was against the law that the CIA quickly concluded had been licensed by the crown prince himself, noting — amongst different components — that MBS’s proper-hand man had met with the crew earlier than they left to kill Khashoggi in Istanbul, and that seven members of the hit squad have been a part of MBS’s private safety element, answerable solely to him.

And but the stunning nature of Khashoggi’s homicide has tended to obscure the previous years, when at first high Obama administration officers, after which President Donald Trump and his influential son-in-legislation, Jared Kushner, embraced MBS with few reservations and extolled his supposed virtues.

“He’s the only person I’ve met in 30 years of my involvement or more with Saudi Arabia who has put that kind of a vision on the table for the transformation of the country,” mentioned John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state, in an interview for “Conspiracyland” about his evaluation of MBS on the time.

Kerry’s Georgetown house was the setting for maybe probably the most iconic second in MBS’s courtship of the U.S. authorities. It was in June 2016, and the brand new Saudi protection minister, throughout a visit to the United States, was invited to a Ramadan dinner at Kerry’s home. As he entered, MBS noticed the grand piano in the lounge, promptly sat down and began to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”

John Kerry, then U.S. secretary of state, left, greets Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside Kerry's Washington, D.C., residence, before a meeting with him in June 2016.

Secretary of State John Kerry greets Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outdoors Kerry’s Washington, D.C., house in 2016. (Molly Riley/AFP by way of Getty Images)

“I mean, we were all surprised,” recalled Kerry. “Somebody had trained him well.”

But whilst he impressed the friends in Kerry’s lounge, others noticed the darkish impulses of a would-be tyrant. Ben Rhodes, then Obama’s deputy nationwide safety adviser, recollects a summit in Riyadh the earlier April, when Obama raised U.S. considerations about Saudi Arabia’s worsening human rights report, together with a mass execution of 47 prisoners and the case of a Saudi blogger who had simply been sentenced to 10 years in jail — and 1,000 lashes with a whip.

“Obama’s like, ‘What are you guys doing? I’m not gonna defend this,’” mentioned Rhodes in an interview for “Conspiracyland.”

But all of the sudden, “MBS stands up in the middle of the room, and, and begins to lecture Obama: ‘You don’t understand the Saudi justice system. And if we didn’t do this, our people would demand vengeance.’ And then he offers to get Obama a briefing on the Saudi justice system. I mean, dripping condescension. You know? And I just remember sitting there and thinking, like, ‘What is going on here?’”

“It spoke to a personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails, you know?” Rhodes added. “I imply, when you’re comfy standing up in a room full of individuals and lecturing the president of the United States … as a result of he’s elevating considerations about mass executions in your nation, you aren’t the man individuals [are] studying about … within the New York Times and the Washington Post, who’s [described as] a reformer. I imply, it simply laid naked the utter bullshit of the narrative round MBS to me. And I’m, I’m sitting there considering, you realize, ‘How are people calling this guy a modernizer?’”

President Barack Obama, left, in April 2016 with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh..

Obama with Mohammed bin Salman in April 2016 at a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh. (Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

But there was an issue of far more concern to U.S. officials than the young prince’s condescending lecture to Obama. With virtually no warning to Washington, MBS had launched a merciless war in Yemen, targeting the Houthis — a religious minority group loosely aligned with the Iranians who had seized control of the country’s capital. Saudi warplanes, using American weapons, had unleashed a relentless wave of bombings that were slaughtering civilians by the thousands, sparking outrage from human rights groups.

There was “countless documentation of U.S.-manufactured bombs being used on markets, on schools, on people’s homes, on hospitals, on clinics throughout the country,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, then the director of Human Rights Watch’s Mideast Division and now the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now.

Officials in the Obama administration were well aware of the compromising position this put them in. The State Department’s legal office even launched an inquiry into whether the United States was complicit in war crimes. (The lawyers never reached a firm conclusion.) But the White House was torn about what to do.

At the White House, officials were “repelled by what we were seeing,” said Rob Malley, who was then on the National Security Council and charged with coordinating U.S. policy in the region. “But the first instinct was, ‘Well, let’s see if we could give them advice on how to make sure that they don’t kill civilians again.’ But it turns out time and again, whether it’s a mosque, whether it’s a market, whether it’s whatever it is, that they would not only hit it once, they hit it twice, sometimes more.”

Girls show towards the Saudi-led coalition outdoors the places of work of the United Nations in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in August 2015.

Girls demonstrate in 2015 against the Saudi-led coalition outside U.N. offices in Sanaa, Yemen. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Still, said Malley, Obama was reluctant to provoke a confrontation with the Saudis. At the time, relations were tense over the Iranian nuclear deal, which Riyadh opposed, and he wanted the Saudis’ help in the war against the Islamic State group.

“There was a meeting [about the war in Yemen] of the Principals Committee, chaired by President Obama,” said Malley. “There were voices expressing a lot of concern.” But Obama “felt he could not, given everything else that was happening in the region, afford a crisis with one of the few countries with which we still retained … strong relations and cooperation on a whole host of issues, counterterrorism first and foremost.

“I was extremely — how could I put it? — troubled by the whole decision, because we should not have been complicit in this war,” added Malley, who has rejoined the National Security Council under President Biden. “And, you know, the U.S. makes enormous — mistakes is probably too, too kind a word, to describe many, many of its actions.”

There was no doubt in the minds of Malley and other U.S. officials that it was MBS who was driving the train. “He seemed to be already oblivious to the consequences of the actions that he took,” said Malley. “And this was his war … because he was the one who appeared to order it.”

It was a harbinger of even more disturbing moves to come.

Next on “Conspiracyland”: Influence Operations

MBS deposes his chief rival, Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince, while the Saudis launch covert influence operations on U.S. soil, including a campaign to curry favor with President Donald Trump with mass bookings at the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and a plot to plant spies inside Twitter to steal personal data from critics of the Saudi regime.

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist’s years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: “From royal insider to focus on: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi management’s crosshairs”

Cover thumbnail photograph illustration: Yahoo News; pictures: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images, Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

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