The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kushner’s Saudi deal must be scrutinized to protect U.S. democracy

Then a senior adviser to the White House, Jared Kushner meets with Saudi Arabian officials during a visit in March 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
3 min

Ali Al-Ahmed is founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

The Saudi Arabia business managers knew the deal didn’t make sense, but Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved it, perhaps knowing that what he was buying couldn’t be measured as a simple dollars-and-cents return on investments.

That’s how Saudi Arabia ended up giving $2 billion to Jared Kushner, son-in-law of the former president who served as a senior adviser to Donald Trump in the White House. The deal has raised alarms for the obvious corruption it reflects — but the implications could be even more consequential.

Read this piece in Arabic.

Managers of the Saudi Public Investment Fund objected to the investment, citing “the inexperience of the Affinity Fund management” — the firm was founded just last year by Kushner — and other risk factors. But MBS was quick to overrule their objections and ordered the transfer.

For MBS, Kushner represents another powerful domestic proxy to interfere in American politics. The crown prince has not forgiven President Biden for speaking ill of him during the campaign and now he is out for blood. MBS has picked a side and has carefully cultivated ties with Republican leaders and former Trump officials.

MBS expects a substantial return for the billions he is showering on Republican figures. Of course, Saudi interference in U.S. elections is not new. Donations made by foreign agents hired to act on behalf of Saudi interests exceeded $1.6 million in the 2018 election cycle, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Post's View: Jared Kushner strikes a dubious deal with Saudi Arabia’s dictator

But these days MBS can be even bolder. He is obviously confident that he is immune to any pressure coming from the United States — in fact, he’s confident enough to go on the offensive.

He is encouraged by the Biden administration’s continued support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and American senior officials’ promise to protect the monarchy against external and domestic threats. There have been reports that Biden officials have discussed traveling to Saudi Arabia to repair the relationship and convince the kingdom to pump more oil.

MBS is responding with contempt. He has not condemned Russia on Ukraine, refused to increase oil production and probably leaked the news of him refusing to take Biden’s call. A few days ago a sketch on a state-funded TV station mocked Biden as a sleepy, forgetful old man.

The prospect of a dictator using his deep pockets to wield influence at the highest levels of the U.S. political system should be cause for serious concern and targeted action. Not all attacks on American democracy will take the shape of violent insurrections — the corruption of the Saudi-Kushner deal is an attack on democracy, too.

The Biden administration and Congress should look carefully into this and other suspicious transactions. Deals of this sort should trigger a legal and security review to guard the U.S. political landscape from foreign actors, especially dictators with blood on their hands, whose actions affect regular Americans at the pump every day.

Failing to scrutinize the deal will further erode trust in U.S. democracy, at home and abroad. This week, 30 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking him to review Saudi-U.S. relations and chart a new path that addresses human rights concerns long ignored by the United States. More pressure such as this is needed to get the Biden administration to move forward with an actual policy change — a long-overdue departure from unconditional support for the Saudi monarchy.

But MBS appears to be ready to counter any change. It’s clear he is willing to use his vast resources to get what he wants.