A senior US foreign affairs official gave one of the most awkward press conference responses ever witnessed in response to a question about Saudi Arabia’s attitude to democracy.
Having served as US Ambassador to Jordan and Iraq – and been in Al Anbar Province in 2004, as it became the deadliest region for US forces in Iraq – Stuart Jones might have been considered more than able to fend off questions about Saudi Arabia’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for elections.
Instead the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Affairs Bureau, freshly returned from accompanying President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Saudi Arabia, seemed completely stumped by the relatively straightforward reporter’s question.
He was asked: “While you were over there, the Secretary criticised the conduct of the Iranian elections and Iran’s record on democracy. He did so standing next to Saudi officials. How do you characterise Saudi Arabia’s commitment to democracy, and does the administration believe that democracy is a buffer or a barrier against extremism?”
“Um,” said Mr Jones. He took a deep breath. He tried again: “Err…”
And then the senior State Department official fell completely silent. For 16 seconds, although to Mr Jones it may have seemed more like an eternity.
Behind his spectacles, Mr Jones seemed to be staring into space, lost in thought – or panic – possibly considering his response, perhaps hoping the ground would swallow him up, or maybe wondering why on Earth he hadn’t wrapped up the press conference before allowing that one last question.
Finally, a full 20 seconds after the question was asked – a pause described by one experienced commentator as the longest ever seen from a US official – Mr Jones managed a stuttering response.
It made no reference at all to attitudes to democracy in a kingdom where only three elections – all of them merely for local councils – have been allowed in 52 years.
The official State Department transcript seems to have tidied things up by removing the agonising pause and the hesitations, but the video shows Mr Jones’ full response to have been: “I think what we would say is that, uh, at this meeting, we were able to, err, make significant progress with Saudi and GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] partners in, uh, both making a strong statement against extremism and also, um, and also putting err…err, putting in place certain measures through this GCC mechanism where we can combat extremism.
"Clearly one source of extremism – one source – one err terrorism threat is coming from Iran. And that’s coming from a part of the Iranian apparatus that is not at all responsive to its electorate.”
There is then yet another pause, Mr Jones staying stock still before a fellow State Department official says “okay” to indicate that the press conference is over. Mr Jones then quietly thanks the assembled reporters, collects his papers and exits before anyone is rude enough to ask a follow-up question.
In the aftermath, the reporter who asked the question, Dave Clark, AFP’s Washington-based diplomatic correspondent, has shown admirable tact.
“I asked about Saudi democracy,” he said. “I found his pause eloquent.
“It was pretty awkward being there,” added Mr Clark, originally from Newcastle. “Especially as I wasn’t trying to embarrass Jones himself.”
In fairness to Mr Jones, characterising US ally Saudi Arabia’s attitude to democracy may require American officials to consider their words carefully.
Saudi Arabia has been a monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family since the kingdom was founded in 1932. Since then, elections of any sort have been rare. In the 40 years between 1965 and 2005 there were none at all.
This century, there have been three elections, in 2005, 2011 and 2015. All of them, however, were just elections for municipal councils whose powers were limited to local issues like street cleaning and rubbish collection.
In 2015, for the first time in the kingdom’s history, women were allowed to vote and stand as candidates. Prior to that, the kingdom’s Grand Mufti, its most senior religious figure, had described women’s involvement in politics as “opening the door to evil”.
But in 2015, with women in Saudi Arabia still not permitted to drive or to address men who were not related to them, female election candidates could only speak directly to female voters. When attending gatherings of male voters, they had to speak from behind a partition or have a man read their speech for them.
At a national level, Saudi Arabia does have a consultative assembly, but the emphasis is very much on consultative. The Al Saud royal family continues to appoint the government, and no political parties are allowed.
All of which may explain Mr Jones’s difficulties.
Prior to facing Mr Clark’s final, apparently unanswerable question, he had briefly discussed his impending retirement. It was, Mr Jones explained, a decision he had made more than a year ago, just a personal choice and nothing to do with the outgoing Obama and incoming Trump administrations, both of whom he had been “delighted” to serve.
His response, and the fact he gave it before facing Mr Clark’s question, also shows that Mr Jones’ retirement was in no way related to his press conference performance.
He will, though, be missed by at least one reporter.
“I’m sad he’s leaving,” said Mr Clark.
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