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'Umm... Err...': Brutally Long Silence by Top US Diplomat Speaks Volumes About Saudi Democracy

"How do you characterize Saudi Arabia's commitment to democracy?" A good question that is apparently hard for U.S. officials to answer.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Stuart Jones had a... ummm... errr... ahh... hard time answering this relatively straightforward question. (Image: Screenshot/U.S. State Department)

Sometimes a nearly 20-second pause by a top U.S. official reveals much more than words could about the troubling lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia and the special relationship the United States retains with the repressive Gulf monarchy.

Recently returned from an overseas trip with President Donald Trump, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Stuart Jones was asked by a reporter on Tuesday about remarks made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when in Riyadh. But Jones' answer was more telling for what he couldn't say than what he ultimately managed to come up with.


"While you were over there," Jones was asked, "the Secretary criticized the conduct of the Iranian elections and Iran's record on democracy. He did so standing next to Saudi officials. How do you characterize Saudi Arabia's commitment to democracy, and does the administration believe that democracy is a buffer or a barrier against extremism?"

Fumbling for words before entering into the prolonged pause, Jones seemed genuinely flummoxed by the request to square the Trump administration's rhetoric against Iran—which regularly holds nationwide elections and, in fact, had its most recent one while the president and his team were in the region—with its steadfast embrace of the Saudi regime, known for its anti-democratic posture and appalling human rights record.

As The Independent's Adam Lusher reports, the response by Jones

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 agonizing 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."

The reporter who asked the question, Agence France-Presse's diplomatic correspondent Dave Clark, subsequently said his inquiry was not intended to embarrass Jones.

"I asked about Saudi democracy," Clark said with deference. "I found his pause eloquent."

But, he added, "It was pretty awkward being there."

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