Feb 13, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Kushner calls MBS "visionary leader" who has made the world better

Kushner wearing black on stage

Jared Kushner (L) with Dan Primack at the Axios BFD conference in Miami. Photo: Ledd Villamarzo, EDIN STUDIOS

Jared Kushner called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a "visionary leader" in an interview at the Axios BFD conference in Miami on Tuesday.

Why it matters: Kushner was criticized for standing by MBS in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi's murder as a senior U.S. official and, more recently, for courting Saudi investments after leaving the White House.

What he's saying: After some initial exasperation at being asked about Khashoggi's murder — "are we really still doing this?" — Kushner told Axios' Dan Primack that he had not seen the U.S. intelligence assessment that the crown prince ordered the assassination of the Washington Post columnist.

  • "I know the person who I dealt with. I think he's a visionary leader. I think what he's done in that region is transformational," Kushner continued.
  • "I think he's done a lot of things that are in America's interest. And I think he's done a lot of things that have made the world a better place. So I think I stand by all the policies that we put forward at the time," he added.
  • "I understand why people are upset about that, I think what happened there [to Khashoggi] was absolutely horrific, but again, our job was to represent America, to try to push forward things in America."

Driving the news: Kushner secured $2 billion in investments from the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) within a year of leaving the White House and starting out in private equity, leading to accusations that he leveraged his close ties with MBS as a U.S. official into a private sector payday.

  • Kushner has not been accused of violating any laws, and rejects the idea he has crossed any ethical lines.
  • "PIF is one of the most prestigious investors in the world. Every fund manager is trying to work with them," Kushner told Primack.
  • "I think what's happening in Saudi Arabia is one of the most exciting transformations that we're seeing now in the world."

The big picture: MBS has taken steps to liberalize Saudi society and modernize the kingdom's economy, from allowing women to drive to opening movie theaters and concert venues. Kushner also referenced the crown prince's moves toward establishing relations with Israel.

  • But the Saudi leader is also notoriously ruthless, with a penchant for locking up activists and rivals.
  • After Trump left office, the Biden administration swiftly released a report attributing blame for Khashoggi's murder to MBS and distanced itself from the brutal Saudi war in Yemen.
  • But President Biden backtracked and began to prioritize Saudi Arabia's regional influence and leverage in international oil markets over taking a stand on human rights. He offered MBS a fist bump during a 2022 visit to Riyadh and began working toward a now-stalled mega deal that would include Saudi-Israeli normalization.

Of note: Kushner, who played a key role in brokering the Israel-Arab normalization agreements known as the Abraham Accords, called Biden's reversal "one of the greatest compliments."

  • "They said they were going to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state. Then after two years, they kind of realized that our policy was right, and they've now fully embraced the policies that we've done," Kushner said.

What's next: Kushner told Primack his firm will continue to court deals in the Middle East, and that he plans to stay in private equity and out of a potential second Trump administration.

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