Trump says Saudi crown prince doing 'spectacular job'
OSAKA - US President Donald Trump praised Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday, saying he was doing a "spectacular job", despite international outcry over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The young royal has faced international pressure after the US-based writer was killed and dismembered in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul last year.
"You have done a spectacular job," Trump told the powerful crown prince as the pair met on the sidelines of the G20 summit, referring to him as "a friend of mine".
Trump said he is "extremely angry" about the murder of the Saudi journalist but that nobody had "pointed a finger" at the Kingdom's leader.
"I'm extremely angry and unhappy about a thing like that taking place" Trump said, when asked about whether he had raised the issue with the Prince.
But "nobody so far has directly pointed a finger at the future king of Saudi Arabia," Trump added.
"They've taken it very seriously," the US leader insisted, referring to a Saudi-run investigation and trial over the killing that has been criticised by some for secrecy and is being conducted largely behind closed doors.
"They've been a terrific ally."
In a readout provided after the talks, the White House said the pair discussed "the importance of human rights issues", among other subjects, but gave no further details.
It's not clear if he was pressed privately over concerns about the killing, but the prince seemed completely at ease in public on Friday and Saturday.
In addition to standing next to Trump in the center part of the front row for the first group photo, the prince was seated next to the summit's host, Abe, at the official opening ceremony, possibly a reflection of Saudi Arabia's role as host of next year's G-20 gatherings.
'A very positive way'
As the prince — easily one of the tallest leaders, and striking in his flowing traditional robe — strode from meeting to meeting, or wandered among the other leaders before the summit's set-piece ceremonies, he often flashed a broad smile. At Saturday's panel on women's empowerment he sat in the front row, chatting amicably with other leaders.
Riyadh has looked to project an air of confidence in its handling of the investigation, hitting back against claims that Prince Mohammed bears responsibility in the murder of Khashoggi, who was killed in what Saudi authorities have described as a rogue operation.
But a UN expert report has said that the "execution of Mr Khashoggi was the responsibility of the state of Saudi Arabia", and that Prince Mohammed must have been aware of attempts to cover up the crime, including a forensic cleaning of the consulate.
The report urged a formal criminal investigation into the case, citing "sufficient credible evidence" of the prince's responsibility.
But Saudi prosecutors say all those to blame are already on trial, citing proceedings against 11 unnamed individuals in the kingdom. Five of those face the death penalty in the trial, which has been held secretly, with only a handful of diplomats allowed to attend.
The prince's closest former adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, who was sanctioned by the United States after the killing, is not among those on trial.
Nevertheless, Trump was effusive in his praise of Prince Mohammed, who has moved to loosen some social restrictions in the kingdom but has also been accused of cracking down on activists, including women pressing for the right to drive.
"It's an honour to be with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia... a man who has really done things in the last five years in terms of opening up Saudi Arabia," Trump said.
"I think especially what you'e done for women and seeing what's happening - it's like a revolution in a very positive way."
"We're trying to do our best for our country, Saudi Arabia, and it's a long journey," the crown prince said.
'World appreciates it'
Trump said he appreciated Saudi Arabia's purchase of US military equipment, although his plan to boost defence sales to the kingdom has hit obstacles in Congress, where Democrats and some fellow Republicans are not happy about alleged human rights abuses, including Khashoggi's murder and the deaths of civilians in Yemen's war.
The CIA has determined the crown prince ordered Khashoggi's killing, and the Senate this month voted to block the sale of billions of dollars of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, rejecting Trump's decision to sidestep Congress's review of such deals by declaring an emergency over Iran.
Trump has promised to veto the Senate action, while Saudi officials have consistently denied any involvement or prior knowledge of the murder in Istanbul.
Critics have said Trump let the Saudis off the hook by expressing doubt in the CIA assessment and arguing that the United States could not risk its alliance with Saudi Arabia because of the threat posed by Iran.
The United States has blamed Iran for recent attacks on oil tankers in Gulf shipping lanes, which the Unites States is working with Saudi Arabia and other allies to protect.
Trump said Saudi purchases of military equipment supported at least 1 million US jobs, and appeared to exonerate the kingdom for any past acts of "terror", accusations which have repeatedly been levied at the Saudi monarchs in the past.
"For a long time there were questions as to whether or not Saudi Arabia and other countries were sponsoring terror," said Trump, as he sat next to the crown prince.
"You have absolutely stopped and I really appreciate that and the world really appreciates it," Trump said.
Western worries about Saudi Arabia may have not resonated in the G-20 meetings, but there remains mounting concern in certain quarters about the ties between the kingdom and the many nations that have relied on its natural resources and political position.
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, David Wearing, the author of "AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain," said strategic bonds between Saudi Arabia and the Atlantic powers may survive, "but the existential threats are now plain to see, and if anyone in Riyadh, Washington or London has a serious plan to preserve the status quo, they are keeping it a closely guarded secret."