On Thursday night The Daily Beast published a report describing an alleged kidnapping attempt by an agent of the Saudi government on American soil. The victim of the attempted abduction is Abdulrahman Almutairi, a Saudi citizen who came to America as a student and now works as a social media commentator and comedian.
Almutairi is also an inadvertent dissident. When he first arrived in America he was a supporter of the Saudi regime and he welcomed the ascension of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who is now the de facto ruler of the oil-rich monarchy. Almutairi became a critic only when he became convinced that Bin Salman had ordered the assassination of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018.
After he started speaking out against the Saudi regime, Almutairi became the target of both online abuse and mysterious threatening messages. According to The Daily Beast, within weeks of the Khashoggi assassination, the FBI intercepted two men traveling to Los Angeles to make an unannounced visit to Almutairi. One was Almutairi’s father, the other someone not known to Almutairi but suspected by him of being a Saudi government agent.
This incident happened during a period when the FBI was warning other Saudi dissidents living in America that their lives were under threat from forces within Saudi Arabia. The Saudi embassy was contacted by The Daily Beast about Almutairi’s allegation, which is backed up by independent sources, but did not respond.
The Almutairi story followed quickly on the heels of multiple media reports that Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post, had his iPhone hacked thanks to malware sent to him by Mohammed bin Salman.
In May 2018, the crown prince sent Bezos a WhatsApp message containing a video of Saudi and Swedish flags. According to The New York Times, “The video, a file of more than 4.4 megabytes, was more than it appeared, according to a forensic analysis that Mr. Bezos commissioned and paid for to discover who had hacked his iPhone X. Hidden in that file was a separate bit of code that most likely implanted malware that gave attackers access to Mr. Bezos’ entire phone, including his photos and private communications.” After the hack, personal information about Bezos appeared in the tabloid National Enquirer, known to have ties to both Donald Trump and bin Salman (the owners of the gossip sheet published a special journal to celebrate bin Salman’s May 2018 visit to America).
These Saudi scandals are taking place against the backdrop of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Like the earlier Khashoggi murder, they show that Donald Trump’s foreign policy scandals go well beyond Ukrainegate.
At the heart of Ukrainegate is the allegation that Trump has made foreign policy subservient to his personal agenda. Trump allegedly tried to leverage military aid to Ukraine to get the president of that country to smear Joe Biden.
With Saudi Arabia, the evidence corruption seems more mercenary than political. Saudi-funded lobbyists, along with the Saudi royal family itself, have rented hundreds of rooms at Trump’s hotels. Mohammed bin Salman has cultivated personal relations with members of Trump’s family, notably his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
As The New York Times reported in December of 2018, “It was around the time of the White House visit in March 2017 that senior officials in the State Department and the Pentagon began to worry about the one-on-one communications between Prince Mohammed—who is known to favor the online messaging service WhatsApp—and Mr. Kushner.” WhatsApp, of course, was the platform that compromised Bezos.
Even after the Khashoggi murder, Trump refused to sanction Saudi Arabia, citing the importance of economic relations. Indeed the Trump administration even authorized the sharing of nuclear information with Saudi Arabia a month after the writer was killed.
In a January 11, 2020 interview with Fox News, Trump suggested that the American military was serving as a mercenary force for the Saudi government. “We’re sending more [troops] to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia is paying us for it,” Trump said. “They’re paying us. They’ve already deposited $1 billion in the bank.” A Pentagon spokesperson later clarified that these remarks were inexact. While the United States is discussing with Saudi Arabia possible financial contributions to joint security in the Middle East, no money has been put in the bank.
Trump’s emphasis on the economic benefits of Saudi-American relations is the same line that Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin has taken with the Bezos case. “We do a lot of business with Saudi Arabia,” Mnuchin asserted. “They’re obviously a big component of energy. We have an important defense relationship with Saudi. And that’s not going to change based upon one article in the paper.”
To be sure, a tight relationship with the House of Saud has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy going back to the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. It’s a policy that has had bipartisan support for decades. But that relationship has been fraying in recent years, under pressure not just from the Khashoggi murder but also from a growing movement to end American support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen. In April of 2019, Trump vetoed a bill calling for the end of American support for the war in Yemen that had passed both the House and Senate with bipartisan majorities.
Ukrainegate is likely to have an unsatisfying ending, with Trump impeached in the House but acquitted in the Senate. This makes it all the more urgent for congressional Democrats to keep investigating Trump and for Democratic presidential hopefuls to highlight Trump’s broader corruption of American foreign policy.
As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch argues, “It’s imperative that House Democrats launch a full investigation of the Trump-Saudi alliance and where it overlapped with this foreign power’s blood-soaked, illegal campaign against a major American newspaper.” The point of the investigation, like the impeachment itself, will be to make clear to voters in the coming election that Trump has twisted foreign policy for his own ends.