The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The week’s other summit: Kushner to meet Saudi crown prince

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

As President Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi this week, there will be another eye-catching audience between a top White House official and a bloodstained autocrat. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, will meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a seven-day, five-country tour of the Middle East.

The trip is intended to advance the White House’s long-awaited project for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In an interview with Sky News Arabia while in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, Kushner said that his plan, long clouded in secrecy, was “very detailed” and would safeguard the “dignity” of all in the region.

Few outside Kushner’s orbit are as confident. Veteran Mideast watchers say the endeavor will be “dead on arrival.” The Palestinians have preemptively rejected Kushner’s efforts following Trump administration moves they consider anti-Palestinian. Those actions, as Financial Times columnist Edward Luce pointed out, are ones Kushner conspicuously pushed for.

Kushner “encouraged Trump to move the US embassy to Jerusalem last year, oppose a Palestinian right of return, withdraw diplomatic recognition from the Palestine Liberation Organization and slash aid to the UN relief agency,” Luce wrote.

In the absence of meaningful progress, the highlight of Kushner’s trip will almost certainly be his meeting with the Saudi crown prince. The duo’s close relationship is well-documented, starting before Trump took office and seemingly tangled up in a web of the Kushner family’s real estate interests. According to a December report in the New York Times, Kushner was actively cultivated by the Saudis because of his “scant knowledge about the region, a transactional mind-set and an intense focus on reaching a deal with the Palestinians that met Israel’s demands.”

Kushner has reportedly consulted with Mohammed over a range of matters, including the ambitious royal’s plans for economic restructuring and how to weather the controversy over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Mohammed is even alleged to have once quipped that he has Trump’s son-in-law “in my pocket.”

Last week, my colleagues reported on new revelations in a document released by congressional Democrats that key members of the Trump administration wanted to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia in the early months following Trump’s inauguration — no matter the objections of senior national security officials.

The news sent alarm bells ringing among nonproliferation experts wary of Riyadh pushing for its own nuclear weapons. “It is critical to understand production of nuclear fuel for a civilian power plant is just a short step away from a different type of fuel that is suitable for a nuclear weapon,” wrote global affairs commentator David Andelman. “And, most worryingly, the Saudis seem anxious to produce their own fuel domestically rather than buying it, at lower prices, from the United States or any other nation that adheres to non-proliferation controls.”

The inquiry also revealed the White House’s possible pecuniary interest in such a deal. My colleagues unpacked Kushner’s murky role in the proceedings: “The report ... notes that one of the power plant manufacturers that could benefit from a nuclear deal, Westinghouse Electric, is a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management, the company that has provided financial relief to the family of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser. Brookfield Asset Management took a 99-year lease on the Kushner family’s deeply indebted New York City property at 666 Fifth Ave.”

“Kushner’s conflicts of interest are considerably more entangled than that,” Luce wrote. “But the moral is simple. U.S. administrations used to spread best practice to the Middle East and beyond — or at least to pay lip service. Under Trump, the flow has reversed. Washington is importing the Gulf’s culture of patronage clientelism.”

That shouldn’t be surprising. “Trump, of course, is most comfortable when the West Wing is operating as a family office,” wrote Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox, an expert on the Trump family. “[It] helps to explain why, despite an anti-nepotism law that stood for 50 years, he deputized his son-in-law to lead some of the most significant foreign-policy initiatives of his administration, and why his daughter frequently represents the administration on trips abroad.”

For Mohammed, Kushner’s arrival is more evidence of his global rehabilitation. Though U.S. intelligence agencies say they believe he ordered Khashoggi’s abduction and killing, the Trump administration has moved on from the episode — and has urged other governments to do the same.

Last week, Mohammed toured three major Asian nations — Pakistan, India and China — and received warm, lavish welcomes in each. He also announced hundreds of billions of dollars in investment deals. In Beijing, he demonstrated his grasp of realpolitik when he seemed to defend China’s shocking detention of more than 1 million Uighurs, a minority Muslim group in the country.

“China has the right to take anti-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security,” he was quoted as saying by China’s state-owned CCTV.

Mohammed “understood that human rights violators generally find absolution in Beijing,” wrote Fred Hiatt, The Washington Post’s editorial director. “And he must have understood that if he, as guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, absolved China of its anti-Muslim depradations, he would be especially welcome.”

It’s not just in the east where the crown prince is finding friends. As I reported last month from the World Economic Forum, myriad Western business leaders and politicians are willing to see the slaying of Khashoggi as an unfortunate blemish upon an otherwise promising relationship.

“We have long since dealt with the Khashoggi case,” said Swiss President Ueli Maurer to local news agency SDA. “We have agreed to continue the financial dialogue and normalize relations again.”

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.