Timing of $138m Saudi fund transfer to US raises eyebrows

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been strongly criticised by the journalist. The Saudi funds for Syria's stabilisation are a cornerstone of US President Donald Trump's "America First" strategy. Turkish forensic police conducting a
Turkish forensic police conducting a search at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Wednesday. The Turkish authorities say journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed on Oct 2 during a visit to the consulate. Riyadh is seeking to manage the blowback over allegations that Saudi agents were responsible for Mr Khashoggi's disappearance.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Washington Post contributor and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident, has been missing since Oct 2.
Washington Post contributor and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident, has been missing since Oct 2.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been strongly criticised by the journalist. The Saudi funds for Syria's stabilisation are a cornerstone of US President Donald Trump's "America First" strategy. Turkish forensic police conducting a
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been strongly criticised by the journalist.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been strongly criticised by the journalist. The Saudi funds for Syria's stabilisation are a cornerstone of US President Donald Trump's "America First" strategy. Turkish forensic police conducting a
The Saudi funds for Syria's stabilisation are a cornerstone of US President Donald Trump's "America First" strategy.

It comes as Pompeo visits Riyadh over case of missing journalist

WASHINGTON • The United States received a payment of US$100 million (S$138 million) from Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, the same day Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Riyadh to discuss the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a State Department official confirmed.

Saudi Arabia publicly pledged the payment to support US stabilisation efforts in north-eastern Syria in August, but questions persisted about when and if Saudi officials would come through with the money.

The timing of the transfer, first reported by The New York Times, raised questions about a potential payoff as Riyadh seeks to manage the blowback over allegations that Saudi agents were responsible for Mr Khashoggi's disappearance.

The US State Department denied any connection between the payment and Mr Pompeo's discussions with Saudi officials about Mr Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist.

"We always expected the contribution to be finalised in the fall timeframe," Mr Brett McGurk, the State Department's envoy to the anti-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria coalition, said in a statement. "The specific transfer of funds has been long in process and has nothing to do with other events or the secretary's visit."

Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich monarchy and staunch US ally, has long relied on its financial largesse to persuade partners to support its foreign-policy objectives.

Western diplomats suspect that the kingdom will also compensate Turkey for its willingness to launch a joint investigation on Mr Khashoggi's disappearance - a payback that could come in the form of large-scale debt relief, strategic buyouts or other arrangements that boost Turkey's ailing economy.

Mr Trump initially promised "severe punishment" for Saudi Arabia if the US determined that Saudi agents killed Mr Khashoggi. But the President has since floated an alternative theory involving "rogue killers". On Wednesday, he called the Saudis a US "ally".

The Turkish authorities say that Mr Khashoggi was killed on Oct 2 during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document required to get married. They also claimed that the body of the US resident - who was a strong critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - was chopped up and removed.

Mr Trump initially promised "severe punishment" for Saudi Arabia if the US determined that Saudi agents killed Mr Khashoggi. But the President has since floated an alternative theory involving "rogue killers". On Wednesday, he called the Saudis a US "ally".

 
 
 
 

"They are a tremendous purchaser of not only military equipment, but other things," he said.

Speaking to reporters after his meeting with the US President yesterday, Mr Pompeo said he had told Mr Trump that the US should give Saudi Arabia a few more days to wrap up its investigation into the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi.

"I told President Trump this morning that we ought to give them a few more days... so that we too have a complete understanding of the facts" before deciding on a response, Mr Pompeo said at the White House.

The Saudi payment to support stabilisation efforts in Syria is a cornerstone of Mr Trump's "America First" strategy, which calls on regional countries to take on a greater burden for security challenges, including Syria. In August, US officials hailed the Saudi pledge and said the US would use US$230 million earmarked to help stabilise Syria for other purposes.

Middle East experts said that the timing of the transfer likely sent a clear message to the Trump administration.

"In all probability, the Saudis want Trump to know that his cooperation in covering for the Khashoggi affair is important to the Saudi monarch," said Professor Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma. "Much of its financial promises to the US will be contingent on this cooperation."

The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Turkish investigators searched the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for a second time as part of its probe, leaving early yesterday after searching the building and consular vehicles. They used bright lights to illuminate the garden, although it was unclear what they were doing.

Meanwhile, senior ministers from Europe and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin yesterday pulled out of a major investment conference in Saudi Arabia, expressing deep concern over the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi.

The ministers joined a slew of corporate bigwigs who are now shunning next week's Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, touted as a showcase for the economic reforms of the Crown Prince.

WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

SEE OPINION:  West Asian signals from Khashoggi case

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2018, with the headline 'Timing of $138m Saudi fund transfer to US raises eyebrows'. Print Edition | Subscribe