External Affairs

Question About Saudi ‘Commitment’ to Democracy Leaves US Official Speechless. Literally.

At a recent media briefing, a top State Department official fumbled awkwardly so as not to offend his bosses or a US ally.

Stuart Jones’ lack of words has gone viral on social media. Credit: Reuters/Ari Jalal

There are no words. Quite literally.

That’s probably how Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, felt at a media briefing in Washington on Tuesday, May 30 as he frantically struggled to answer a question on democratic freedoms in Saudi Arabia. The question posed by Dave Clare of Agence France Presse seemed to cause the top US state department official quite some trouble. He finally managed to struggled his way to a few words…but none of them made sense in the context. They definitely did not answer the reporter’s question. Here’s the video.

Talk about awkward silence.

Here’s the text from the video.

Clark: “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 barrier against extremism?”

Jones: “(Pauses for 18 seconds) I think what we would say is, that at this meeting, we were able to make significant progress with Saudi and GCC partners in both making a strong statement against extremism and also putting in place certain measures through this GCC mechanism where we can combat extremism. Clearly one source of extremism – one 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.”

This isn’t even Jones’s first press conference, having been a top US diplomat to the Middle East. Naturally, Jones’ prolonged state of speechlessness did not go unnoticed by anyone present in the room or watching the video.

The Washington Examiner called the almost unending pause the “most painful 18-second news conference response you’ll see all week”, adding that one could “pinpoint the moment Tuesday afternoon when Acting Assistant Secretary of State Stuart Jones’ prayed silently for the earth to open up and swallow him whole.”

Mother Jones said in it’s headline, ‘At the State Department, Sometimes Silence Speaks Volumes’, while other US news agencies like Business Insider termed it “agonising” and “awkward”.

News agencies aren’t the only ones having a laugh over Jones’s inability to find words. Social media has had many laughs over the clip of the media briefing, which has gone viral. Many joked on Twitter that they thought that their video feed had frozen. And who can blame them? One person even called him the “personification of a twitter bot”. Here are some reactions on Twitter:

And the icing on the cake, the obvious reference to a FRIENDS episode.

To be honest, it’s probably not Jones’s fault. As many US news agencies pointed out, there probably was no answer to the question, which was a pointed barb at the US’s double standards over Iran and Saudi Arabia. Jones clearly wasn’t equipped or prepared to answer that question, because people don’t ask it all that often.

No wonder then, that he was hurriedly rushed away by the officials at the briefing after his awkward answer. He was probably relieved to be leaving.