Is the Saudi Money to Jared Kushner a Sign the Gulf Thinks Trump is Returning?
The question in the wake of the New York Times story—that the Saudi Crown Prince MBS overrode the advice of a panel of distinguished advisors in order to invest $2 billion in Jared Kushner’s budding investment fund, Affinity Partners—has many people understandably asking the question: Why?
The answers to this are more complex and numerous than you might think.
The obvious answer is the worst one: Yes, MBS invested all that money, despite the objections that Kushner had no track record, because MBS felt he owed Kushner for all his “help” during the Trump Administration, most of which I outlined in Kushner, Inc. There was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which Kushner white-washed; there was the alleged intelligence Kushner gave MBS when MBS was rounding up his relatives and sticking them in a hotel in order to torture them and relieve them of their finances. (A spokesperson for Kushner denied this, but I reported in Kushner, Inc. that someone with knowledge told me, “They caught the Saudis talking to each other about how Jared would give them information.” This was confirmed by intelligence sources, and Democrats in Congress demanded an investigation.) There was the encouragement to make the first State visit of the Trump Administration to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with a $100 billion-plus arms deal struck in advance of the trip.
So, in that sense, the decision by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund to invest in Kushner is “ugly” because, yes, it means that Kushner is like Hunter Biden, Billy Carter, Tony Rodham and every grifting Presidential family member who has ever lived, except that, in Kushner’s case, it’s worse because at least Biden, Carter, and Rodham were not actually in the White House themselves shaping foreign policy—which Kushner was.
The situation regarding MBS and the investment with Kushner is possibly a little more complicated, according to my sources.
Jared Kushner stands among Saudi officials as President Donald Trump talks with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday, March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
One person who speaks often to MBS tells me that it’s Important to remember that, despite Trump’s U.S. State visit in 2017, the Saudis (and the neighboring oil-rich Emiratis) did not actually come away with warm, fuzzy feelings towards Trump—or really toward the U.S. by the end of Trump’s administration.
“The Saudis have increasingly wondered: Are we [the U.S.] reliable?” someone who speaks to Saudi leadership often told me. “This may have started with Obama, but it continued under Trump. Yes, the Saudis were flattered as hell by the State visit in 2018 but, in September of 2019, the Saudis were hit by Iranian missiles, and Trump did fuck all. Trump didn't send more troops or do anything. The Saudis freaked out, and they sent one of their senior people to Washington, to say: Hey man, we get hit by Iran, where are you? And the Trump administration still did nothing. So the narrative in Saudi continues that America's turning away from the region.”
In Kushner, Inc., I described a dramatic scene in which MBS appeared at the White House in the spring 2018 to ask for financial support with the war in Yemen, and Trump humiliated him using an easel and images highlighting MBS’s wealth:
On March 20, 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and an entourage of bodyguards traveled to the White House in armored limousines. MBS was there to meet with President Trump, Jared Kushner, and John Kelly, ostensibly to discuss weapons sales. Trump said after the meeting: “We’ve become very good friends over a fairly short period of time.” He later boasted that various deals with the Saudis would create 120,000 American jobs. The meeting was exactly one week after Trump announced the firing of Rex Tillerson. (Trump tweeted the news shortly after Tillerson had returned from a trip to Africa—and before he told Tillerson.)
But the meeting, according to several sources briefed afterward, was not as successful as Trump’s amiable tone and statements implied. MBS balked when Trump asked him to pay some of the anticipated costs associated with rebuilding Syria. Trump said he wanted four billion dollars, the same amount he had reportedly asked for from MBS’s father, King Salman, three months earlier. MBS responded that he didn’t have that kind of money. MBS looked visibly offended at the gauche way in which Trump produced storyboards to show what benefits Saudi investment would reap in the U.S. (Trump even used MBS as his human easel.) According to a source close to MBS, Trump refused to believe the Saudis were broke and challenged MBS on the subject. The thrust of his questions were, according to this source: “Well, how did you fly here? Did you fly in commercially, or did you come in on your several airliners? Who paid to transport your five-thousand-people delegation, and these four hundred limousines?” He may even have mentioned the story of the auctioned painting and the yacht, said this person. “It became very heated.”
But Kushner, says sources, always carved out a relationship with MBS that was distinct and different from Trump’s.
One senior U.S. diplomat explains on the condition of anonymity, “Kushner is viewed differently. Jared worked the relationship on a personal basis much harder than anyone else. He hung out with the Saudi leaders. He didn’t do drive-bys; he sat cross-legged with them, and that was appealing. They don't like these spin-strike folks who get in and get out and say, Hey, Saudi Arabia, love you. Give me these three things.”
However, the timing of the leak of the PIF investment to the New York Times is not being viewed as helpful in Saudi Arabia right now. I’m told they want to play it as “old news.”
This is because the feelings MBS had for Trump pale in comparison with the disdain with which MBS holds the Biden administration, which has been at pains to not recognize Saudi leadership.
Until now, that is—when the war in Ukraine necessitated a volte-face. Suddenly, the U.S. needs help from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to produce oil and keep gas prices down. This in turn means a possible recalibration of the U.S. plan to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump withdrew from, because one of the big Saudi priorities is to ensure that the JCPOA does not happen.
As of yet, Biden and MBS have not spoken. But the back channels are busy trying to fix this. Currently, my sources say, the Biden administration is sending envoys into the region.
“They're sending envoys to see what would break the ice on both sides and save face, all at the same time,” says one of the intelligence sources. “The Saudis now are in a listening mode: ‘Okay. Give me what you got so I can reconsider.’ But they have not reached anything yet... It’s all hush, hush—under the table. But essentially, the U.S. is saying: ‘Well, why don't you do something that would do something nice that would substantiate a Biden trip to Riyadh?’ And the Saudis are saying, ‘No, you do something nice for us to receive you during Ramadan.’ So they're both on a bridge, and we don't know in which direction things are going.”
So, in that context, the timing of the New York Times story did not go over well in Riyadh, I am told.
But sources tell me there is a completely different further reason MBS invested with Kushner: Trump.
Believe it or not, the region increasingly believes that Biden is on his way out of office and that Trump will come back—and that even though Kushner is unlikely to be in a new Trump administration, Ivanka Trump is still… Ivanka Trump.
A senior political advisor in the region tells me, “I think there's a strong view in the Middle East that Biden is facilitating Trump's reentry…There’s a view that Trump is coming back— that this [investment with Kushner] is, in a way, a bet on that.”
Back to the phones—more to come as I #followthemoney.