In the Gulf they joke that Saudi-US relations are run by the crown prince and “the clown prince”. The first, Mohammed bin Salman, is Saudi Arabia’s strongman. The second, Jared Kushner, is Donald Trump’s son-in-law. If it were not for their friendship, relations between the US and the House of Saud might be in serious crisis. But Mr Kushner has an Arab-Israeli peace plan up his sleeve.
In his view Saudi backing will be key to its success. Which means the Saudis can get away with nearly anything — alleged royal-instigated killing, for example — as long as they hold out the prospect of backing Mr Kushner. To say the least, Prince Mohammed has the better of the bargain. Few people give Mr Kushner’s peace plan ironically dubbed “deal of the century” much chance. The epithet “dead on arrival” has become standard even before the plan has arrived.
Mr Kushner bears most of the blame for this. He encouraged Mr Trump to move the US embassy to Jerusalem last year, oppose a Palestinian right of return, withdraw diplomatic recognition from the Palestine Liberation Organization and slash aid to the UN relief agency.
This has all but assured Arab rejection of whatever plan Mr Kushner produces. Having initially sounded positive, Prince Mohammed has recently gone quiet. Whatever the crown prince owes Mr Kushner, he would be rash to lead a funeral march for Palestinian dreams.
Yet Saudi Arabia’s debt to Mr Kushner is mounting. Last week, Mr Trump ignored a congressional deadline to report on Prince Mohammed’s role in October’s killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the US-based Saudi journalist. Mr Trump was surely aware of Prince Mohammed’s threat that anyone who accused him of ordering Khashoggi’s gruesome killing would be crossing a red line. Mr Trump must also have listened to Mr Kushner, who has been Prince Mohammed’s unwavering White House defender.
The crown prince and Mr Kushner reportedly communicate regularly with each other on WhatsApp. Likewise, Mr Kushner has helped shield Saudi Arabia from US sanctions over human rights abuses in Yemen — one of the few areas where a critical mass of Republicans has sided with Democrats. Little surprise that Prince Mohammed reportedly boasted that Mr Kushner was “in his pocket”.
The truth may be worse than that. Mr Kushner is not some rogue actor in an otherwise functional White House: he is Mr Trump’s most trusted adviser. This is in spite of the fact that he was denied security clearance for highly classified information by both the CIA and White House career staff. In each case, the denial was overruled from above.
The warning bells had been set off by Mr Kushner’s complex overseas financial ties, his family company’s deep indebtedness, and US intelligence agencies’ eavesdropping on foreign government chatter about Mr Kushner’s pliability. His actions seem to have vindicated those concerns.
In August, the Kushner family company was bailed out from a crippling mortgage following Mr Kushner’s ill-judged $1.8bn purchase of 666 Fifth Avenue — a white elephant New York deal that he closed shortly before the 2008 crash. The debt could have bankrupted his family business. Mr Kushner’s white knight was Brookfield Asset Management, one of the world’s largest property companies.
According to The New York Times, Mr Kushner has spearheaded efforts to avoid US safeguards to permit the building of civil nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia. A key part of the nuclear consortium was Westinghouse, which is owned by Brookfield and its partners. In the cold war, US nuclear diplomacy was called “atoms for peace”. In this case it looks more like “atoms for bailout”.
Mr Kushner’s conflicts of interest are considerably more entangled than that. But the moral is simple. US administrations used to spread best practice to the Middle East and beyond — or at least to pay lip service. Under Mr Trump, the flow has reversed. Washington is importing the Gulf’s culture of patronage clientelism.
Would Kushner companies have avoided bankruptcy if its favoured son were not in the White House? Would Ivanka Trump’s accessory line keep receiving trademark approvals in China were she not the “first daughter”? Likewise, would Saudi Arabia’s crown prince be acting with such impunity if he did not have a powerful White House cheerleader?
The questions answer themselves. Mr Trump’s blue-collar voter is taken as the face of American populism. That may be so. Its chief plutocratic beneficiary is surely Mr Kushner.
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