Wooed by Saudis, Jared Kushner became influential friend

Mr Jared Kushner's support for Crown Prince Mohammed has helped draw US President Donald Trump into an embrace of Saudi Arabia as one of his most important international allies.
Mr Jared Kushner's support for Crown Prince Mohammed has helped draw US President Donald Trump into an embrace of Saudi Arabia as one of his most important international allies.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Senior United States officials were worried. Since the early months of the Trump administration, Mr Jared Kushner, the US President's son-in-law and Middle East adviser, had been having private, informal conversations with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the favourite son of Saudi Arabia's king.

Given Mr Kushner's political inexperience, the private exchanges could make him susceptible to Saudi manipulation, said three former senior US officials. In an effort to tighten practices at the White House, a new chief of staff tried to reimpose longstanding procedures stipulating that National Security Council staff members should participate in all calls with foreign leaders.

But even with the restrictions in place, Mr Kushner, 37, and Crown Prince Mohammed, 33, kept chatting, according to three former White House officials and two others briefed by the Saudi royal court. In fact, they said, the two men were on a first-name basis, calling each other Jared and Mohammed in text messages and phone calls.

The exchanges continued even after the Oct 2 killing of Mr Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was ambushed and dismembered by Saudi agents, according to two former senior US officials and the two people briefed by the Saudis.

As the killing set off a firestorm around the world and US intelligence agencies concluded that it was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed, Mr Kushner became the prince's most important defender inside the White House, people familiar with its internal deliberations say.

Mr Kushner's support for Crown Prince Mohammed in the moment of crisis is a striking demonstration of a singular bond that has helped draw US President Donald Trump into an embrace of Saudi Arabia as one of his most important international allies.

But the ties between Mr Kushner and Crown Prince Mohammed did not happen on their own. The prince and his advisers, eager to enlist US support for his hawkish policies in the region and for his own consolidation of power, cultivated the relationship with Mr Kushner for more than two years, according to documents, e-mails and text messages reviewed by The New York Times.


A delegation of Saudis close to the prince visited the United States as early as the month Mr Trump was elected, the documents show, and brought back a report identifying Mr Kushner as a crucial focal point in the courtship of the new administration. He brought to the job scant knowledge about the region, a transactional mindset and an intense focus on reaching a deal with the Palestinians that met Israel's demands, the delegation noted.

Even then, before the inauguration, the Saudis were trying to position themselves as essential allies who could help the Trump administration fulfill its campaign pledges. In addition to offering to help resolve the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, the Saudis offered hundreds of billions of dollars in deals to buy US weapons and invest in US infrastructure. Mr Trump later announced versions of some of these items with great fanfare when he made his first foreign trip: to an Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The Saudis had extended that invitation during the delegation's November 2016 visit.

"The inner circle is predominantly deal-makers who lack familiarity with political customs and deep institutions, and they support Jared Kushner," the Saudi delegation wrote of the incoming administration in a slide presentation obtained by the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, which provided it to The Times. Several Americans who spoke with the delegation confirmed the slide presentation's accounts of the discussions.

The courtship of Mr Kushner appears to have worked.

By March, Mr Kushner helped usher Crown Prince Mohammed into a formal lunch with Mr Trump in a state dining room at the White House, capitalising on a last-minute cancellation by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany because of a snowstorm.

"The relationship between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman constitutes the foundation of the Trump policy not just toward Saudi Arabia but toward the region," said Mr Martin Indyk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Middle East envoy.

The administration's reliance on the Saudis in the peace process, its support for the kingdom's feud with Qatar, a US ally, and its backing of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, he said, all grew out of "that bromance".

Top aides to Crown Prince Mohammed met Mr Kushner on a trip to New York in November 2016, after the election. The Saudi team included Mr Musaad al-Aiban, a Cabinet minister involved in economic planning and national security, according to executives who met with them and a person who was briefed on the meetings. Mr Al-Aiban did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Kushner was clear about his priorities, the report said. "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was among the most important issues to draw Kushner's attention," the delegation reported, and therefore the best way to win him over.

To cultivate ties with the Trump team, the Saudis had prepared a long list of initiatives they said would help Mr Trump deliver for his supporters. Several of the proposals were evidently welcomed.

One was a "joint centre to fight the ideology of extremism and terrorism". Mr Trump helped inaugurate a Saudi version of the centre on his trip to Riyadh the following May.

Another Saudi proposal outlined what the Trump administration later called "an Arab Nato". In their presentation, the Saudis described it as an Islamic military coalition of tens of thousands of troops "ready when the president-elect wishes to deploy them".

Other initiatives appeared timed to Mr Trump's first term in office, like proposals to spend US$50 billion (S$68.5 billion) over four years on US defence contracts, to increase Saudi investment in the US to US$200 billion over four years, and to invest, with other Gulf states, up to US$100 billion in American infrastructure.

And the delegation urged Mr Trump to come to Saudi Arabia himself to "launch the initiatives as part of a historic welcome celebration".

Within weeks of Mr Trump's move into the White House, Mr Kushner had embraced the delegation's proposal for the president to visit Riyadh, convinced by then that the alliance with Saudi Arabia would be crucial in his plans for the region, according to a person who discussed it with Mr Kushner and a second person familiar with his plans.

By the time of the inauguration, Mr Kushner was already arguing that under the influence of Crown Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia could play a pivotal role in advancing a Middle East peace deal, according to three people familiar with his thinking. That would be the president's legacy, Mr Kushner argued, according to a person involved in the discussions.

It was around the time of the White House visit in March 2017 that senior officials in the State Department and the Pentagon began to worry about the one-on-one communications between Crown Prince Mohammed - who is known to favour the online messaging service WhatsApp - and Mr Kushner.

"There was a risk the Saudis were playing him," one former White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

One former White House official argued that Mr Kushner's personal ties to Crown Prince Mohammed had sometimes been an asset.

At one point, for example, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen had blocked a critical port, cutting off humanitarian and medical supplies. The national security adviser at the time, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, suggested that Mr Kushner call Crown Prince Mohammed to address the issue, the official said, and Lt Gen McMaster believed Mr Kushner's intercession had helped persuade the Saudis to loosen the restrictions.

Few of the Saudi promises have amounted to much.

The effectiveness of the counterterrorism centre in Riyadh remains doubtful. After offering US$50 billion in new weapons contracts, the Saudis have signed only letters of interest or intent without any firm deals. After proposing to marshal up to US$100 billion in investments in American infrastructure, the Saudis have announced an investment of only US$20 billion.

Inside the White House, Mr Kushner has continued to argue that the President needs to stand by Crown Prince Mohammed because he remains essential to the administration's broader Middle East strategy, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Whether Crown Prince Mohammed can fulfill that role, however, remains to be seen. His initial approaches to the Palestinians were rejected by their leaders, and their resistance stiffened after the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital without waiting for a negotiated agreement on the city's status.

Now the crown prince's father, King Salman, 82, who is still the official head of state, has appeared to resist Mr Kushner's Middle East peace plans as well.

"The Palestinian issue will remain our primary issue," the king declared in a speech last month, "until the Palestinian people receive all of their legal rights."