JERUSALEM – United States Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he would travel to Saudi Arabia to solidify a pressure campaign against Iran, but noted it was too early to discuss potential sanctions against the Saudi kingdom for its alleged role in the death of government critic Jamal Khashoggi.
The trip, scheduled for Monday, shows the fine line the US treasury secretary is trying to tread as the Donald Trump administration cultivates a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia to support its objectives in the Middle East, even as many of the world’s top finance leaders and government officials shun the kingdom and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, over Khashoggi’s death.
Saudi Arabia is the primary challenger to Iranian power in the region and a crucial global oil supplier. The kingdom is also expected to play a critical role in bringing the Palestinians to the bargaining table for any Middle East peace plan with Israel, a close US ally.
At the same time, Mnuchin has sought to send a message to Saudi Arabia about the US’s concern over the death of Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post who had been living in the US after fleeing the kingdom.
Last week, Mnuchin canceled his plans to speak at the Future Investment Initiative, a conference critical to promoting Prince Mohammed’s plans to restructure the economy, as details of the apparent killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey pointed to Riyadh’s involvement.
Saudi Arabia said early Saturday Khashoggi died in the Istanbul consulate after a fistfight. Some 18 Saudi nationals have been detained in connection with the incident and two top officials have been relieved of their positions.
Mnuchin’s cancellation at FII, known as “Davos in the desert,” was seen by Saudi officials as a rebuke for the journalist’s death. President Trump is still weighing a more formal response.
Dozens of top executives have recently pulled out of the investment conference, including the chief executives of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Mastercard Inc.
Mnuchin’s decision to keep his planned Saudi leg of a six-country tour of the Middle East comes just days ahead of a November deadline when the US’s most crippling sanctions against Iran come into force.
That program requires wide cooperation among countries to prove effective. As the Middle East’s biggest economy and home to Islam’s two holiest mosques, Saudi Arabia has strong sway with many countries in the region. The kingdom is also being called on to boost output to offset falling Iranian oil exports, Tehran’s most important revenue resource.