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Khashoggi's Death Shines A Light On Saudi Influence In Washington


Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has denied that the crown prince had any prior knowledge of the operation that resulted in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


ADEL AL-JUBEIR: This was an operation that was a rogue operation. This was an operation where individuals ended up exceeding the authorities and responsibilities they had. They made the mistake when they killed Jamal Khashoggi.

GREENE: That interview was on Fox News, and it came a day after officials in Riyadh announced the arrest of 18 people in connection with the journalist's death and also the firing of five top officials. The Saudi government says that Khashoggi died after a fist fight during an interrogation.

Now, after initially calling that explanation credible, President Trump acknowledged in an interview with The Washington Post over the weekend that, quote, "obviously there's been deception, and there's been lies," end quote. What happens next with the investigation and also with the U.S. response could have huge implications for U.S.-Saudi relations and also for the region's stability.

And let's talk more about this with Gerald Feierstein of the Middle East Institute. He's also former ambassador to Yemen and has held diplomatic posts in Saudi Arabia as well as in Pakistan and Israel. Ambassador, thanks for coming on this morning.

GERALD FEIERSTEIN: It's a pleasure.

GREENE: Before I dig into this with you, I do want to note - I mean, this incident has put organizations with connections to the Saudis in a sensitive spot. And The Washington Post has reported on financial ties between your group and Saudi Arabia. And I guess I just wonder, is the Middle East Institute going to change the relationship given the death of Jamal Khashoggi?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, in fact, the board of governors of the Middle East Institute met last week and put out a statement afterwards and made clear that the Middle East Institute would not accept additional Saudi government funding until there is clarification on what exactly happened at the Saudi consulate.

GREENE: And what about the United Arab Emirates? I mean, there are Saudi ally organizations also taking funding from them. Is that - is the board going to act in that way as well?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, no. The money that we take from the UAE, which is reported on our website, it's all public knowledge. It's not tied. In fact, it was mostly a donation for the building that we're constructing in Washington.

GREENE: Does this all speak to how sensitive this issue is?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, it does put many organizations here in Washington and around the country in a very difficult situation. The relationship with Saudi Arabia - both the government relations, as you mentioned in your intro, and private organizations - Saudi Arabia has been an important partner. And we would like to believe that it's been a positive relationship over these years. Right now there's a lot of concern among these organizations as well as in Congress and the general public about which direction Saudi Arabia's actually moving.

GREENE: Well, one direction they're moving in - I mean, the government there is describing this killing as a rogue operation by individuals who exceeded their authority, and that the crown prince didn't know anything about this happening. Is this plausible?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, it's difficult to accept at face value. The fact of the matter is that there were reports days before the Saudis issued their statement that they were trying to develop an explanation and that the explanation that they were trying to put together was exactly what they said days later - that it was a rogue operation, that it was the work of Ahmed al-Asiri and people around him, maybe Saoud al-Qahtani.

And so this was days in advance. And it's hard to believe that, in fact, it was the result of any kind of an investigation on the part of the Saudi authorities as opposed to simply a story that they concocted to try to protect the crown prince.

GREENE: Well, if that is the case, I mean, if the Saudi government was scrambling to come up with kind of an explanation and this is not coming from any serious investigation, what are the options here for the United States and for the Trump administration?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, it puts the Trump administration in an extremely difficult situation. I would say it's really a nightmare for the administration. And of course you have on the one hand a very deep concern about a Saudi government that is clearly out of control. But at the same time, the administration has identified Saudi Arabia as a critical partner in achieving its goals and objectives in the region - the fight against violent extremism, the confrontation with Iran, maybe progress on the Israeli-Palestinian account.

So they've been depending a lot on the Saudis to deliver important advances in our own foreign policy and national security objectives. How they're going to balance that is going to be difficult. There's - clearly there's a great deal of anger and frustration on Capitol Hill - bipartisan.

And I think when Congress comes back in session after the midterm elections, there's probably going to be a great deal of scrutiny not only of what the Saudi government has done but also how the United States has responded, what are the connections between the Trump administration and the Saudis, and whether or not the administration is going to be able to walk that tightrope of preserving the relationship while also responding to the concerns and the frustrations that they're going to hear from Capitol Hill...

GREENE: And are already hearing, I mean, we should say.

FEIERSTEIN: ...Is going to be tough - and are already hearing. They're...

GREENE: And one thing, if I may. I mean, one idea that has come up is deals with the country that you know very well, Yemen, where you were U.S. ambassador. I mean, the Saudis have been involved in that country's civil war. There's been U.S. involvement supporting the Saudis. Thousands of people, many civilians have died. Would one option to send a message be for the United States to end its support of the Saudis there?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, it's a difficult - that's a difficult issue. Of course there's no question that the Saudi military campaign in Yemen has been a catastrophe. It's been a catastrophe for the Yemeni people, triggering one of the worst if not the worst humanitarian crises. But at the same time, the administration also understands that the Saudis are not wrong in expressing their concerns about the situation in Yemen and the effect on their own internal security.

GREENE: Gerald Feierstein, former ambassador to Yemen, also served in diplomatic posts in many countries, including Saudi Arabia - he's now at the Middle East Institute. Thanks so much for your time this morning. We really appreciate it.

FEIERSTEIN: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.