Senior US official reduced to very awkward silence when asked about Saudi Arabia’s attitude to democracy

A question about Saudi Arabia’s attitude to democracy has reduced a senior US foreign affairs official to giving one of the most awkward press conference responses ever witnessed.

Having served as US Ambassador to Jordan and Iraq, having 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, fully 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…

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