US President Donald Trump said on Monday he is sending his top diplomat to Saudi Arabia after Saudi King Salman told him in a phone call that he has no idea what happened to missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Just spoke to the King of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened ‘to our Saudi Arabian citizen,’” Trump said in a tweet, adding he was “immediately sending” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with the king.
Trump has taken a cautious position since the disappearance of Khashoggi — a Washington Post contributor and critic of powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Trump has threatened “severe punishment” should proof emerge to back claims that Saudi agents killed Khashoggi and disposed of his body.
However, the US president has repeatedly made clear that he will not risk billions of dollars in deals to sell weapons to the kingdom, which is a strategic ally in the tinderbox Middle East.
Following days of mounting tensions, Saudi officials were allowing Turkish investigators to enter the consulate on Monday.
A Turkish diplomatic source said it was expected that the search, to be conducted jointly with Saudi authorities, would “take place towards the evening.”
Lurid claims have appeared in Turkish media, including that Khashoggi was tortured and dismembered. However, the Turkish leadership has so far refrained from pointing the finger directly at Riyadh in public comments.
The controversy has troubled Saudi Arabia’s traditional Western allies — many of the arms suppliers to the kingdom — and also undermined efforts by the prince, Mohammed, to present himself as the modernizing future of the kingdom.
An investment conference is seen as a platform for the crown prince, due to take place next week in Riyadh and dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” has been hit by a string of prominent cancellations.
Business barons including British billionaire Richard Branson and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, as well as media powerhouses like Bloomberg and CNN, have pulled out of the Future Investment Initiative (FII).
In major new twin blows to the credibility of the event, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Ford chairman Bill Ford also canceled plans to attend, CNBC reported.
In Washington, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, is coming under pressure after having spearheaded the administration’s strategy to forge close ties with Mohammed.
But US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Saturday that he still plans to attend the Saudi conference.
“If more information comes out over the next week, I will obviously take that into account,” he said.
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