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The Pickle, the Prince & the Pot, or, The Saudi Courtship of Jared Kushner
Kushner was the de facto U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Was he also the de facto Saudi ambassador to the United States?
Last week, Ranking Member Jamie Raskin called on James Comer, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, to subpoena Jared Kushner regarding his newbie private equity fund’s “receipt of billions of dollars from Gulf monarchies shortly after Mr. Kushner left a senior White House position he used to reshape U.S. foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in Saudi Arabia’s favor.”
That Kushner’s fund, Affinity Partners, banked $2 billion from the sovereign wealth fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), its “cornerstone” investor, is not some random occurrence. The relationship between FPOTUS’s son-in-law/senior adviser and Mohammed bin Salmon (MbS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, was deliberately and systematically cultivated by Riyadh. MbS, like a world-class con man—like one of Danny Ocean’s guys—played the long game with Jared, and won.
Under the despotic and repressive Saud regime, the Kingdom has offered the world little beyond oil, investment capital, botnet swarms, and airline hijackers. This is a country where women were only recently allowed to drive, where the LGBTQ community is aggressively persecuted, where dissent of any kind is not tolerated. A few weeks ago, a Saudi court sentenced a retired educator to death for tweets that “describ[ed] the King or the Crown Prince in a way that undermines religion or justice.” And that is only the most recent example. This is the same retrograde regime responsible for the barbaric assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi—who, prior to Trump’s election and Khashoggi’s subsequent exile, was considered friendly to the royal family, a sort of KSA Maggie Haberman. As I type this, any number of Saudi dissidents languish in prison or exile, enemies of the state.
In short, Saudi Arabia is the antithesis of America—a dictatorial, patriarchal theocracy opposed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion; and to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. For wealthy professional golfers like Phil Mickelson to get in bed with the Saudis is revolting. For sons-in-law and senior advisers to the President to do so—as Comer himself admitted—“crosses the line of ethics.” Jared Kushner’s game of footsie with MbS was atrocious in the moment, and looks even more abominable today.
As we prepare for the 22nd anniversary of 9/11—and recall that 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi nationals—here is a look at the three-act play that is the MbS courtship of Jared Kushner:
Act One: The Pickle
In which Jared Kushner gets himself in a financial jam that threatens to destroy the family business and his own reputation.
In 2007, 26-year-old nepo baby Jared Kushner convinces his father, the New Jersey real estate developer and convicted felon Charles Kushner, that the Kushner Companies should should spring for 666 Fifth Avenue, an office tower in Midtown Manhattan. The deal is a disaster from the start. The purchase price is a whopping $1.8 billion—the most ever paid for an office building of that kind. The consensus in the real estate community is that they paid too much. Ominously, most of the financing—all but $50 million—is on credit.
The ink is hardly dry on the deal when the entire global economy craters. From 2008 until the sale of 666 Fifth ten years later, the Kushner Companies make deal after deal after deal to stave off default. There are agreements with the Carlyle Group, with Crown Acquisitions, with Vornado. At last, having exhausted U.S. sources, the Kushners look to the Middle East, lobbying the Qataris for an infusion of capital. The Qatar financiers are reluctant, because as an investment opportunity, this is right up there with helping out a down-on-his-luck Nigerian prince.
By the time Jared Kushner joins the White House, he is in dire straits, increasingly desperate for a bail-out. If he doesn’t find a new lender to restructure the loan, the family business will go under, and, worse, it will be his fault. So the stakes could not be higher. And everyone in the wide, wide world knows it—including the exquisitely well-informed Saudi royal family. Indeed, massive exposure to potential foreign influence is one of the reasons Kushner was seen as a national security risk by the intelligence community. He’s an easy mark.
Charles Kushner, father of Jared Kushner, begins negotiations with Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (HBJ) of Qatar.
Jared Kushner formally joins the campaign of his father-in-law, Donald John Trump.
November 8, 2016
Trump wins the election despite losing the popular vote by 2.8 million votes.
After a meeting at the St. Regis Hotel between Charles Kushner and Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif Al Emadi—which the Kushner Company initially deny—negotiations break down. The deal is off.
The Kushners are shit out of luck. And everyone knows it.
Act Two: The Prince
In which MbS spots his mark and makes his move.
In 2017, when he becomes Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salmon is 32 years old. As a man on the rise, he has three objectives: to consolidate his own power in a crowded royal family; to diversify the Kingdom’s investments; and to attract favorable press in the West, so that the KSA seems less medieval.
In his fellow Millennial Jared Kushner, he sees a guy who can not only help him achieve all three of his objectives, but who is also clearly in financial distress, and therefore vulnerable. So, after sending a delegation to meet with President-Elect Trump right after the election, MbS begins “cultivating” Jared.
The two men use WhatsApp to text each other, and eventually call each other by their familiar names. The “wooing of Jared Kushner,” as the New York Times put it, is highly effective. Trump does not name an ambassador to the Kingdom until April of 2019. Until then, Jared is the de facto U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. But it’s fair to ask: is he also the de facto Saudi ambassador to the United States?
November 26, 2016
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who in his long career has been seen as friendly to the regime, is banned from Saudi media—no more articles in newspapers, no more TV appearances, no more conferences—because he is critical of Trump.
May 20, 2017
Donald Trump’s first state visit as president is to Riyadh, where he announces a $110 billion U.S.-Saudi arms deal. Past presidents have avoided visits to the Kingdom, on account of Saudi Arabia’s unequivocally dreadful human rights record. In the delegation is Jared Kushner, who reportedly pushed for the trip. While there, Kushner and Steve Bannon meet with officials from Saudi Arabia and Qatar about a potential blockade of the latter country.
June 21, 2017
MbS is named Crown Prince—heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia organizes a blockade of Qatar, with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt also participating. Kushner leads the extreme minority view in the West Wing to support the aggressive action against country whose sovereign wealth fund just declined to help the Kushner Companies restructure the loan at 666 Fifth Avenue. To the consternation of the State Department, Donald Trump praises the move.
Three months after leaving the Kingdom for the Beltway, Jamal Khashoggi begins writing for the Washington Post.
Late October 2017
Jared Kushner pays an unannounced visit to Riyadh, where he stays up until the wee hours talking “strategy” with MbS, his new BFF. He allegedly gives MbS an “enemies list” culled from the classified President Daily Brief. MbS brags that Kushner is “in [my] pocket.”
November 4, 2017
MbS orchestrates a purge of the disloyal, imprisoning members of the royal family who oppose him and seizing their considerable assets. The most prominent is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the 45th richest man in the world and a Trump foil. Khashoggi reports that the amount seized from Al-Waleed is $110 billion—which is, coincidentally, the same amount as the U.S.-Saudi arms deal.
MbS has a state visit with President Trump in Washington. The night after the official visit, he has dinner with his bestie Jared Kushner.
August 6, 2018
Kushner Companies finally “unload” 666 Fifth Avenue, in a deal with Brookfield Properties, a subsidiary of the Canadian multinational Brookfield Corporation. As far as anyone can tell, none of the money originates with the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.
October 2, 2018
The U.S. intelligence community become aware of a plot by MbS to lure Jamal Khashoggi back to the Kingdom, and there to detain him. Trump and Kushner are almost certainly told of this. Neither lift a finger to help the journalist.
Khashoggi goes to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, to secure documents that would allow him to marry his fiancee, a Turkish national. He is detained, and a Saudi kill squad with intimate ties to MbS tortures him, kills him, and dismembers his body. The Saudis deny that he is still in the building.
October 8, 2018
The Saudi assassination of Jamal Khashoggi is confirmed by the media.
October 16, 2018
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flies to Riyadh to meet with MbS. He secures $100 million in Saudi funding for U.S. anti-terror operations in Syria. The message couldn’t be clearer: Despite the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi—and the abyssmal human rights abuses by the Saudi regime, which never abate—all is well between KSA and USA. As usual, money makes the problems go away.
April 10, 2019
John Abizaid, a former CENTCOM commander, is named U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He is the first confirmed individual to hold that post since the resignation of Joseph Westphal on January 8, 2017.
Act Three: The Pot
In which Jared Kushner finds the pot of Saudi gold at the end of the White House rainbow.
In 2017, MbS has the resources to immediately bail out Jared Kushner. He chooses not to do so. Instead, he cultivates his American counterpart. The result is that the Kingdom benefits greatly as a result of its relationship with the Trump Administration—as Raskin will later put it, Kushner helped “reshape U.S. foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in Saudi Arabia’s favor”—and MbS survives the barbaric assassination of Khashoggi with his international reputation more or less intact.
As what certainly looks like payment for services rendered, six months after leaving the West Wing, Jared Kushner starts up private equity firm, Affinity Partners, with $2 billion in capital from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. Even the Saudi money managers think this is a big risk, advising against it, and offering a number of objections. As the New York Times reports:
Those objections included: “the inexperience of the Affinity Fund management”; the possibility that the kingdom would be responsible for “the bulk of the investment and risk”; due diligence on the fledgling firm’s operations that found them “unsatisfactory in all aspects”; a proposed asset management fee that “seems excessive”; and “public relations risks” from Mr. Kushner’s prior role as a senior adviser to his father-in-law, former President Donald J. Trump, according to minutes of the panel’s meeting last June 30.
But MbS does whatever MbS wants. He overrules the panel, and Jared gets his blood money.
To be fair, it should be noted that this infusion of cash isn’t a gift, per se. The Saudis didn’t just write Jared a check for $2,000,000,000, no strings attached; they merely provided seed money for Kushner’s new investment concern. And there is a difference.
Even so, Kushner derives significant income from the company’s revenue; per the Times, Affinity earns a 1.25 percent asset management fee—so, something like $25 million a year. And the company only has 20 employees.
Furthermore, even a modest one-percent return on investment for two billion dollars comes to $20 million annually. Even Jared Corey Kushner isn’t dumb enough to screw that up. And he hasn’t; in a March filing, Affinity reported over $3 billion in assets in two accounts. The arrow is pointing up. Perhaps the hidden genius has found his true calling?
To Riyadh, the financial success of the fund is gravy. The Saudis were blunt about their purposes in consummating the deal. In a letter to a skeptical board member in July of 2021, a fund manager wrote: “This investment aims to form a strategic relationship with the Affinity Partners Fund and its founder, Jared Kushner.” In other words, the only return on investment the Saudis are expecting is the retention of Jared in MbS’s pocket.
Photo credit: President Donald Trump speaks with Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner following the G20 Women’s Empowerment Event in Osaka, Japan, June 30, 2019. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)