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World

Saudi Arabia's Deep Influence In The U.S.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

After two weeks of changing stories, Saudi Arabia says that Jamal Khashoggi died during a fight inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2. President Trump says while it's good that Saudi Arabia's offered an explanation for his death, it's only a first step. The president wants to gather more information before deciding how to respond. Some members of Congress have called for sanctions on the Saudis. So far, the administration's appeared reluctant to do anything that could jeopardize its close ties with the kingdom. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It took the Saudis 2 1/2 weeks to craft their account of Khashoggi's death. And throughout that period, the Trump administration bent over backwards to give the Saudis space. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid what was, on its face at least, a friendly visit to Riyadh for talks with both the king and crown prince. Pompeo told reporters on his return to the U.S., the Saudis are too important a partner to dismiss the relationship overnight.

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MIKE POMPEO: We have a long, strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

HORSLEY: Pompeo is right about that. For decades, U.S. presidents from both parties have felt the need to do business with the Saudis. But while some did so quietly, even at times reluctantly, analyst Dan Drezner of the Fletcher School says President Trump has been eager to showcase his Saudi ties.

DANIEL DREZNER: Trump has no artifice about him, so he's quite upfront about the sort of transactional relationship in a way that other presidents might have been somewhat more embarrassed or inhibited to speak about.

HORSLEY: All this week, when the president was asked about Khashoggi's case, he emphasized Saudi Arabia's role not only as an ally but as a customer.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When I went there, they committed to purchase $450 billion worth of things and $110 billion worth of military. Those are the biggest orders in the history of this country.

HORSLEY: Trump exaggerates those dollar figures, but the Saudis are big spenders, especially in the United States. The kingdom has pledged $45 billion to help bankroll tech companies like Uber and Lucid Motors. Saudi money also flows to American universities, such as Harvard and Georgetown, and to foreign policy think tanks here in Washington. Even before the Saudis acknowledged Khashoggi's death, some recipients were trying to distance themselves from the kingdom's money.

But it's not easy, says Rachel Bronson, author of the book "Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia."

RACHEL BRONSON: They invest in long-term vehicles. They invest in real estate. They've been lately investing in a lot of our high-tech companies. They're investing in institutions and art museums. They have a lot of money to spread around.

HORSLEY: For decades, Bronson says, both the U.S. and the Saudis encouraged those commercial ties as a kind of mutual insurance policy to keep both oil and defense dollars flowing. During the Cold War, the two countries teamed up against the Soviet Union. And more recently, they've partnered to fight terrorism, although the Saudi record on that front is mixed. Former President Obama took a step back from the Saudis as part of his diplomatic overture to Iran. But Bronson says Trump has embraced the kingdom more tightly than ever.

BRONSON: The Trump administration has put all of their eggs in the Saudi basket, and they've been very, very public about that.

HORSLEY: Trump has sided with Saudi Arabia in its regional fight with Qatar and encouraged the very public bromance between his son-in-law Jared Kushner and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. As the president said yesterday, before the Saudis acknowledged Khashoggi's death, that makes it tough for Trump to crack down now.

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TRUMP: Saudi Arabia has been a great ally of ours. That's why this is so sad.

HORSLEY: But Bronson says Saudi Arabia was already backsliding on its pledges of modernization, which is part of what made Jamal Khashoggi so critical.

BRONSON: What Jamal Khashoggi represented for many of us was this belief in managed change in Saudi Arabia, which is very slow. He could be patient. He expected to be patient. But what he didn't expect was the reversals that he was seeing with Mohammed bin Salman.

HORSLEY: Trump says he will listen to congressional calls for sanctions against the Saudis and that he wants to work with lawmakers, even as the president stresses he wants to preserve those multibillion-dollar arms sales. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.