News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Disappearance Of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi Is Straining U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relations


Now, Khashoggi's disappearance and possible murder is straining relations between Washington and Riyadh. And it comes at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Turkey, where Khashoggi was last seen. The Trump administration says it is giving the disappearance high-level attention. But the U.S. has no ambassador in either Saudi Arabia or Turkey. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Robert Jordan was the Bush administration's ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the September 11 attacks. And he says in times like this, it's crucial to have an ambassador, someone who's appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

ROBERT JORDAN: You can't really deal with the highest levels of the government on the ground without an ambassador there and without someone who is constantly beating the drum for American interests.

KELEMEN: Jordan, now a diplomat in residence at Southern Methodist University, says an ambassador would help coordinate U.S. efforts on the ground in Turkey and in Saudi Arabia to find out what happened to Jamal Khashoggi and would be making clear to Saudi officials how unsettling this is.

JORDAN: It's a threat to the relationship. You've got to have people expressing that. And inexperienced freelancers like the Jared Kushners of the world simply can't do that.

KELEMEN: Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, has close ties with the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, a powerful figure who's accused of being behind the disappearance of the journalist. Kushner is relying on Saudi help for a Middle East peace plan he has yet to unveil. Former Ambassador Jordan says it's possible that the crown prince feels emboldened by this relationship with Trump's son-in-law. As for the president, he says he wants to get to the bottom of the Khashoggi situation, but he's not ready to cut off lucrative arms deals.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If we don't sell it to them, they'll say, well, thank you very much; we'll buy it from Russia or thank you very much; we'll buy it from China. That doesn't help us, not when it comes to jobs and not when it comes to our companies losing out on that work.

KELEMEN: Trump was speaking a day after a group of senators sent him a letter requiring him to consider sanctions against Saudi Arabia. Senator Chris Murphy is also calling on Trump to stop supporting the Saudi military campaign in Yemen.


CHRIS MURPHY: That bombing campaign and our participation in it is predicated on our belief that the Saudis are telling us the truth, that they are not intentionally trying to kill civilians. Given the fact that it is likely they are not telling us the truth about what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, why would we believe them that they are not intentionally hitting civilians inside Yemen?

KELEMEN: Jordan, the former ambassador, says the private sector should also speak out and boycott an upcoming investment conference in Saudi Arabia.

JORDAN: Unless really there is a universal reaction of abhorrence to this, this will continue to be a green light for this crown prince.

KELEMEN: A crown prince who he says has played a lead role in a disastrous war in Yemen, a botched political intervention in Lebanon and a purge of his critics at home. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VERY BEST'S "SWEKA (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.