US officials cautious despite Trump's support

US Secretary of Defence James Mattis speaks to the press in Helsinki, Finland.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis speaks to the press in Helsinki, Finland. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON • United States officials are playing it cautious over the purge of domestic rivals by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even as President Donald Trump has voiced his wholehearted support for the move.

Mr Trump, on a trip to Asia, had tweeted his support on Monday, saying that some of those under arrest "have been 'milking' their country for years". He said he had "great confidence" in Crown Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman, and added that "they know exactly what they are doing".

But US Defence Secretary James Mattis, asked if he was concerned that a series of arrests alleging corruption by senior members of the Saudi royal family, officials and business leaders had consolidated national security power in Crown Prince Mohammed's hands, said he needs more information.

"Let me get back to you on this one, once we've settled some back-and-forth sharing of information back to the kingdom," Mr Mattis told reporters accompanying him on a trip to Brussels.

At the State Department, spokesman Heather Nauert said: "We're continuing to monitor the situation."

The Saudis, she said, "have assured us that any prosecutions that take place will be done in a fair and transparent manner, and we hope that they will hold up to that".

She also denied that the State Department had received any "heads up" in advance of last weekend's arrests, but said she was not privy to any conversations that Mr Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's son-in-law and White House adviser, may have had with Saudi officials during an unannounced visit to Riyadh late last month. "I have not spoken to Mr Kushner, nor have I spoken to his office," Ms Nauert said.

Mr Kushner has formed a close relationship with the 31-year-old Saudi Crown Prince and played a leading role in organising Mr Trump's visit to Riyadh on his first overseas trip last summer.

Since Mr Trump's visit, it is the President who has been most publicly adulatory in his praise for King Salman. But he was not always so complimentary.

Over the years, Mr Trump has criticised US military support for Saudi Arabia, which he said was not paying enough for the protection. "The Saudi government would be overthrown in about 15 seconds if we weren't protecting Saudi Arabia," he said in a Playboy interview in 2004.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2017, with the headline 'US officials cautious despite Trump's support'. Subscribe