Journalist's disappearance forces Trump hand on Saudi Arabia

Journalist's disappearance forces Trump hand on Saudi Arabia

Washington: Allegations that Saudi Arabia killed a journalist inside its Istanbul consulate have forced Donald Trump into a position he never expected, raising human rights with the kingdom he has steadfastly supported.

Saudi Arabia was the first foreign destination as president for Trump, who has lavished praise on its ambitious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and closely allied himself with the kingdom in a push to isolate the Sunni state's regional rival Iran.

Trump had stayed silent on human rights as the United States backs the Saudi-led air campaign against rebels in Yemen, which a UN report said has killed thousands of civilians, and when Prince Mohammed, often referred to by his initials MBS, detained dozens of people last year in a controversial crackdown.

But Trump said on Monday he was "concerned" after a Turkish government source said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent opinion writer living in the United States and who contributes to The Washington Post, was killed after he entered the Saudi consulate.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged a "thorough" investigation with "transparent" findings about the fate of Khashoggi, whom Saudi officials insist left the consulate in Istanbul.

Trump told reporters Tuesday he knew nothing about Khashoggi's fate.

Critics say Trump contributed to an atmosphere that may have empowered Saudi Arabia to silence a critic abroad. Trump has repeatedly lashed out at the media, calling it the "enemy of the people," and has raised human rights prominently only when pressuring US antagonists such as Iran and China.

The administration has essentially told "violators of human rights and oppressive leaders, go ahead, do what you need to do, we'll turn the other way, consequences won't be forthcoming," said Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.

The Khashoggi case puts the Trump administration unexpectedly on the side of Turkey, where two top government officials have been slapped with US sanctions over the detention of a US pastor.

Saudi Arabia under MBS has increasingly shown it will not tolerate any foreign criticism. In August the kingdom expelled the Canadian ambassador and froze all trade and investment after Ottawa voiced concern for rights activists in the kingdom.

The United States, with its decades-old military and energy partnership with Saudi Arabia, enjoys far more clout than Canada. But a more prickly relationship could complicate other US goals such as arranging a summit of Gulf Arab allies to advance reconciliation with Qatar, which has been under an embargo by its neighbors for more than a year over disputes that include relations with Iran.

Analysts said the Trump administration felt obliged to speak out on Khashoggi after rising attention from the media and especially on Capitol Hill, where prominent lawmakers on both sides have voiced outrage over the journalist's detention or possible killing.

The Senate in March narrowly failed in a bid to restrict US support for Saudi Arabia's campaign in Yemen over rights concerns.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has cast himself as one of Trump's closest allies, said that if the allegations of wrongdoing by Riyadh are true, "it would be devastating to the US-Saudi relationship and there will be a heavy price to be paid -- economically and otherwise."