- Sarah Leah Whitsonexecutive director of the human rights organization Democracy for the Arab World Now.
We speak with Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), about Turkey’s recent decision to suspend the trial of 26 Saudi men accused of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. DAWN sued Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his alleged conspirators in the murder. Whitson says Turkey’s move to turn over the case to prosecutors in Saudi Arabia shows “the Turkish government has decided that good relations — and in particular investment and trade with Saudi Arabia — is more important than pursuing justice for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil.” We also ask Whitson about news that a fund led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has invested $2 billion in Jared Kushner’s new private equity firm just years after Kushner helped push forward a $110 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia while his father-in-law was in office. She says the investment “exposes the corruption and lack of accountability in both the American system and the Saudi system.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
The New York Times is reporting a fund led by the Saudi crown prince has invested $2 billion in Jared Kushner’s new private equity firm. Kushner is the son-in-law and former top adviser to Donald Trump. While working in the White House, Kushner helped push forward a $110 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia. He also maintained close relations with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman even after MBS was accused of orchestrating the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Public Citizen described the financial deal between Kushner and the Saudis as “extremely troubling.” The Saudi fund also invested a billion dollars in a fund run by Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
This news comes as Turkey suspended the trial of 26 Saudi men accused of killing and dismembering Jamal Khashoggi. The suspects were being tried in absentia. Turkish officials say they’ll now turn over the case to prosecutors in Saudi Arabia — just what the kingdom asked for. Human rights groups say that will lead to a cover-up of the assassination plot, whose alleged masterminds, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have not faced justice.
To talk more about both stories, we’re joined by Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN — that’s Democracy for the Arab World Now, a group founded by Jamal Khashoggi.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sarah. It’s great to have you with us. Can you start off by talking about the suspension of the trial in Turkey and moving it to Saudi Arabia?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Sure. The suspension of the trial in Turkey is something that we were expecting and anticipated, given some remarks by Ibrahim Kalin, the adviser to Erdogan, in Turkey last year. It is part of a process of rapprochement that the Turkish government has been pursuing with Gulf states, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and, in a particularly vulnerable situation where the Turkish economy is in freefall, really doing everything they can to mend ties. Of course, the main obstacle for Saudi ties with Turkey was the persistence of this trial. This is something that the Saudi government wanted to see wrapped up. And Erdogan has delivered by coming up with this pretense of moving the trial to Saudi Arabia, which has no meaning, given that they’ve already had a trial there. Basically, the Turkish government has decided that good relations — and in particular investment and trade with Saudi Arabia — is more important than pursuing justice for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain who these people are, by the way, and also the context that this is all happening in — I mean, clearly, Mohammed bin Salman, who’s been accused by U.S. authorities of personally masterminding this murder, according to the U.S. intelligence agencies — the context of this happening during Russia’s war in Ukraine.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I don’t know if it really pertains to Russia’s war in Ukraine. As I said, the Turkish government made official statements last year talking about possibly ending the trial or moving the trial, although nothing happened. I believe this has been a process that has been underway since that time, with the Turkish government finding — trying to find the quietest way to move that trial. Possibly the Ukraine conflict is a massive global distraction, so there’s less attention on Turkey’s abandonment of the trial in Turkey than there might otherwise be.
But the really important development was President Erdogan’s travel to the UAE to secure further investments. He was supposed to visit Riyadh in February at the same time. That didn’t happen, because the trial was still outstanding. Late last year, the UAE injected massive amounts of cash into Turkey’s failing economy and committed to massive investments going forward. The UAE is really just saving the Turkish economy, has saved the Turkish economy. This is very clear in terms of the Turkish government’s approach to a rapprochement with all of the axis of authoritarians in the region, including Egypt, as a result of which there has been a real crackdown on the Egyptian exile population inside Turkey, as well as a rapprochement with Israel. And so, really, I think this was the main thorn standing in terms of Turkey being able to reestablish good relations, profitable relations, with Saudi Arabia.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the courting of Saudi Arabia right now for its oil, as the world tries to get away from Russian oil and gas, is a key time for Saudi Arabia to make demands in exchange.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Absolutely. And Turkey is not the only government that MBS is making demands on. MBS has also made demands that he be given immunity from prosecution in the United States from our lawsuit with Hatice Cengiz, as well as two other lawsuits pending against him, including against Saad al-Jabri — for his attempted murder of Saad al-Jabri. And so, right now Mohammed bin Salman is reportedly holding oil output and the price of global oil hostage to his escape from prosecution, his escape from justice in the United States. It’s really a terrifying example of the export of authoritarianism to our country, where he has no problem asking for an intervention in our judicial system in order to swap increased oil output. And it is not easy for the Biden administration to deal with what is increased leverage by the Saudi government because of the crisis in oil output and oil prices right now.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to also ask you about The New York Times piece, top story, published Monday, that describes how a fund led by the Saudi crown prince has invested $2 billion in Jared Kushner, his new private equity firm, despite objections from the fund’s advisers about the merits of the deal. And they weren’t only objections. They talked about “the inexperience of the Affinity Fund management,” “the bulk of the investment and risk.” They said due diligence on the fledgling firm’s operations found them “unsatisfactory in all aspects.” So, the advisers said no, and then, when the whole Saudi sovereign fund met, MBS overruled them. Can you talk about the significance of giving $2 billion to the president’s senior adviser — former President Donald Trump — and son-in-law, as well as $1 billion to Steven Mnuchin?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: I would say it exposes the corruption and lack of accountability in both the American system and the Saudi system. In the Saudi system, I think it’s very significant that the board members found a way to leak the information, to reveal the information about their objections to this investment, in a very rare display of challenge to MBS — basically, probably just covering their own butts in terms of their anticipation that this investment will fail, and making clear that they did not want this to happen, that basically this is Jared Kushner’s slush fund that MBS is depositing funds to, in what must be probably the most expensive payoff for covering up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi here in the United States. And the evidence of the cover-up was openly discussed by none other than President Trump. We all know that Jared Kushner had very close ties to MBS and, indeed, leaked the names of Saudis who had been in meetings with U.S. government officials, endangering them, and preceding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. So, this is something that Jared Kushner has been involved in for a while.
In terms of our own country, it’s really just appalling that there could be such a massive payoff for a former government official by a foreign government, whose interests MBS — I mean, rather, Kushner was very, very handily representing here when he was in the United States. It speaks to a glaring lack of conflict of interest rules that should prohibit business dealings by former government officials, services or employment by former government officials, to foreign governments after their work. It just creates a massive conflict of interest. And clearly, the fact that this fund has just come into existence, with the fact that there’s no experience on Kushner’s side for running any kind of [inaudible] fund, and yet it gets billions of dollars from one principal investor, Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, it just reeks. And really what it demands is a congressional investigation about everything that transpired before this fund was set up and everything that’s happening now.
AMY GOODMAN: We should say our guest, Sarah Leah Whitson, is not only the head of DAWN, but she has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the fiancée of Khashoggi that alleges MBS and his co-conspirators ordered the abduction, torture, murder, dismemberment and disappearance of Khashoggi, the lawsuit seeking relief under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act for Khashoggi’s murder. We spoke about that earlier, and folks can go to democracynow.org.