US bows to pressure, pulls out of Saudi meet

Mnuchin was planning to speak at the conference during a six-country swing through Middle East

By Alan Rappeport and Eileen Sullivan/New York Times New Service in Washington
  • Published 19.10.18, 1:13 AM
  • Updated 19.10.18, 2:25 PM
  • 2 mins read
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Turkish police forensic experts arrive at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Wednesday. (AFP)

Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin has withdrawn from the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh next week after facing bipartisan backlash over his plans to attend despite the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist.

Mnuchin was planning to speak at the conference during a six-country, weeklong swing through the Middle East, focused on combating terrorism financing. Several prominent chief executives cancelled plans to attend the conference, along with ministers from Britain, France and the Netherlands.

The treasury secretary, who had been fielding calls from executives in recent days about the wisdom of attending, had been urging everyone to focus on the facts and evidence.

However, the pressure to cancel — which included calls from Republican lawmakers — became too much and, on Thursday, Mnuchin decided to withdraw. It was uncertain as of Thursday morning whether he would still travel to Riyadh, where he was also planning to visit the Terrorist Financing and Targeting Center, a joint initiative between the US, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations unveiled a year ago.

The decision came after Mnuchin met President Trump and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, at the White House on Thursday morning, according to a treasury spokesman. The three men collectively decided that withdrawing was the appropriate move, though the spokesman would not elaborate on whether or not Mnuchin was presented with any new information that influenced the decision.

Mnuchin’s withdrawal was announced less than an hour after Pompeo told journalists that he had made clear to Saudi Arabia’s royal leaders, during a trip to Riyadh this week, that the US was taking the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi seriously.

Pompeo, the former CIA director, described the matter as “the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi” — a striking contrast to a growing assessment among American intelligence agencies that The Washington Post columnist was killed, and that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was culpable in the death.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi (AFP)

The Saudi leaders “assured me that they will conduct a complete, thorough investigation of all of the facts surrounding Khashoggi and that they’ll do so in a timely fashion,” Pompeo said in remarks to reporters at the White House after he briefed the President about his meetings in Riyadh. He said the Saudi report would be “transparent for everyone to see, to ask questions about and to acquire.”

Typically reports involving national security matters are highly redacted, if they are released at all. Pompeo also reminded journalists of America’s long “strategic” relationship with the Saudis, dating back to 1932, and he said the kingdom remained an “important counterterrorism partner.”

After so many other executives and foreign officials scrapped plans to attend the conference, Mnuchin’s attendance emerged as a litmus test for America’s commitment to human rights. Trump and Pompeo have emphasised that the strategic economic relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia goes back decades, and that it should not be upended by the disappearance of Khashoggi.

Trump has also been focused on the fact that the Saudis are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase American-made military equipment and has said he does not want to do anything that could cost American jobs.

Former treasury officials and friends of Mnuchin have been watching closely to see if he would change his mind about the conference and several have spoken candidly about his need to withdraw.

As the news media described gruesome audio recordings that purport to depict the dismembering of Khashoggi, Mnuchin faced backlash from Republican lawmakers such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, as well as several top Democrats.

Former treasury secretary Paul H O’Neill, who served during the George W Bush administration, called the idea of Mnuchin attending “ridiculous” under the circumstances.