FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Dubious Partnership: The US and Saudi Arabia

In recent months Donald Trump has shown no hesitation to comment critically on political developments in Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, and North Korea. He supported protests in Iran against “the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.” He deplored the many years of US military aid to Pakistan, for which “they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. . . . No more!” His criticisms of the Maduro government in Venezuela were accompanied by the threat to use the “military option,” reminiscent of what Trump had once said when talking about Mexico. And of course his personal insults directed at North Korea’s Kim Jong-un are now legendary.

Such interference is now taken for granted, for in Trump’s world, relying on diplomacy and abiding by the principle of noninterference in others’ affairs have no currency in Washington. Of course trying to destabilize other countries, even to the point of seeking regime change, has been part and parcel of US foreign policy for a long time. The difference now may be the constancy of Trump’s interference, and the undiplomatic language he uses.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Trump reserves his harshest tweets for governments he dislikes. When it comes to friends like Israel, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, the operating principle is “hands-off.” They are allowed to use every trick in the book to buy influence in Washington: gaining special access to decision makers, investing in the US economy and offering investment opportunities in their own country, hiring former US officials to lobby, inviting American opinion leaders to lavish conferences, putting on opulent displays of affection when top US officials visit. These folks know Americans will bite at a chance for profit and attention, and pay back with access and influence. Russia’s successful hookups with Trump’s campaign and administration officials in order to end US sanctions are only the latest and most glaring examples of a longstanding problem of influence-buying. They haven’t succeeded so far, but the effort has literally cost them peanuts.

Saudi Arabia has played the influence game just as aggressively as the Russians, and for much longer. Saudi money has effectively lobbied in Washington for many years, often relying on former members of Congress. The Saudis also seek to influence US politics by funding NGOs (e.g., the Clinton Foundation), think tanks, law firms, social media, and even political action committees. Saudi investors, including members of the royal family, may have as much as a half-trillion dollars invested in US real estate, the stock market, and US treasury bills. At the time of Trump’s visit in May the Saudi leadership committed to another $40 billion in infrastructure investments, though whether or not that will actually happen is another matter.

The payoff for the Saudis is arms acquisitions that have usually put Saudi Arabia first on the US arms export list. The $110 billion arms deal announced while Trump was in Saudi Arabia came on top of billions more weapons sold during the Obama years—and consistent US political support since before World War II of the royal family’s authoritarian rule. The Saudis have also bought continued US support of the Saudi air war in Yemen—a humanitarian disaster that probably amounts to war crimes. For the US, cultivating Saudi Arabia yields not only low oil prices and a reliable arms customers but also an easing of Arab pressure on Israel and leadership in Sunni confrontation of Shiite Iran and Iran’s partner, Hezbollah.

Now comes Crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman’s coup, or purge if you like, to solidify his power and eliminate rivals to the throne. We cannot take seriously the proclaimed reasons for Salman’s purge—in order to modernize the country and fight corruption. To Saudi leaders, modernization means dictating the content and timing of social and economic change, a method almost sure to fail. Women may now drive, the cultural scene may look more permissive, and education may open up a bit. But such changes fall well short of removing the ruling family’s control of the courts and the press. Likewise fighting corruption: It clearly doesn’t apply to King Salman and family, who run a blatantly corrupt system that controls many key businesses, nor to the crown prince, who thinks nothing of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on yachts and chateaux while ordering the detention of 320 wealthy citizens. Conflicts of interest are rampant, and ignored. No wonder the Trump family adores these people.

Trump’s Man in Riyadh

Donald Trump was all in on Salman’s coup, tweeting his support: “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing. Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!” (Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has Trump and Jared Kushner boasting, “We’ve put our man on top!”) Was it merely coincidental that Jared Kushner had just visited Saudi Arabia (from October 25-28), and reportedly met with Trump’s buddy, the crown prince? (The trip, Kushner’s third to Saudi Arabia in 2017, was unannounced, supposedly linked to his Middle East peace efforts. But perhaps meetings with other Middle East leaders were merely a cover, since among those purged was a frequent critic of Trump, the billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who once called Trump a “disgrace” to America, after Alwaleed had twice bailed out Trump financially.

It’s all about Iran.

For the Saudis, as for Trump and Kushner, Iran is the main target of the current Saudi-US honeymoon. The Kushner-led regional “peace plan” he supposedly leads—one that is short on substance and even shorter on qualified people (they’re all businessmen) to sell it—is riveted on Iran’s “aggression.” In Lebanon, where Hezbollah is entrenched, Iran seems to be the proxy target. Might Iran have been correct in accusing Kushner of being responsible for the surprise (actually, forced) resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister the following weekend—a resignation announced in Riyadh, where the prime minister was apparently held against his will because he was considered too soft on Hezbollah? The Saudis are ratcheting up the pressure on Lebanon, telling its citizens to leave and dangling the prospect of kicking out around a half-million Lebanese workers in Saudi Arabia who send home some $3 billion annually in remittances.

Salman’s moves against Qatar, which Trump (but not Tillerson), condoned, and now against Hezbollah and Iran, will inevitably further complicate the US position in the Middle East, where “stability” is already so far out of reach. As one astute commentator argues, the Washington-Riyadh axis against Iran “seems to mistake presidential and princely preference and mutual agreement for statecraft and implementation.” But that critique merely suggests that Saudi Arabia be “less aggressive” in its hostility to Iran. More creative statecraft would involve a Saudi diplomatic initiative on Iran to moderate their rivalry in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. But now, with Trump on board in place of Obama, who in fact urged just such a Saudi initiative, diplomacy is out the window. Iranian nationalism is on the rise even among the educated anticlerical class. Trump and Salman have succeeded in generating “widespread support for the [government’s] hard-line view that the United States and Riyadh cannot be trusted and that Iran is a strong and capable state . . . .”

If Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is accurate, Donald Trump believes that by getting close to the Saudis, he can resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Fantasy; it’s the Saudis who have Trump just where they want him. They have to be as satisfied as Russia over what their money has bought: a US Middle East policy that relies on continued arms sales, confrontation with Iran in company with Israel, and acceptance of massive human rights violations in Yemen—in short, further chaos in the Middle East. Fareed Zakaria is correct to conclude: “With Trump so firmly supporting the Saudi strategy, the United States could find itself dragged further into the deepening Middle East morass.” That morass might well include war with Iran, the common obsession of Trump and his national security team. Better to jettison Saudi Arabia; like Pakistan, it is a dubious partner that promises endless trouble for the United States and no help in dealing with terrorism.

More articles by:

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

Weekend Edition
June 14, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump’s Trade Threats are Really Cold War 2.0
Bruce E. Levine
Tom Paine, Christianity, and Modern Psychiatry
Jason Hirthler
Mainstream 101: Supporting Imperialism, Suppressing Socialism
T.J. Coles
How Much Do Humans Pollute? A Breakdown of Industrial, Vehicular and Household C02 Emissions
Andrew Levine
Whither The Trump Paradox?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of 10,000 Talkers, All With Broken Tongues
Pete Dolack
Look to U.S. Executive Suites, Not Beijing, For Why Production is Moved
Paul Street
It Can’t Happen Here: From Buzz Windrip and Doremus Jessup to Donald Trump and MSNBC
Rob Urie
Capitalism Versus Democracy
Richard Moser
The Climate Counter-Offensive: Secrecy, Deception and Disarming the Green New Deal
Naman Habtom-Desta
Up in the Air: the Fallacy of Aerial Campaigns
Ramzy Baroud
Kushner as a Colonial Administrator: Let’s Talk About the ‘Israeli Model’
Mark Hand
Residents of Toxic W.Va. Town Keep Hope Alive
John Kendall Hawkins
Alias Anything You Please: a Lifetime of Dylan
Linn Washington Jr.
Bigots in Blue: Philadelphia Police Department is a Home For Hate
David Macaray
UAW Faces Its Moment of Truth
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Washington Detests the Belt and Road Initiative
Horace G. Campbell
Edward Seaga and the Institutionalization of Thuggery, Violence and Dehumanization in Jamaica
Graham Peebles
Zero Waste: The Global Plastics Crisis
Michael Schwalbe
Oppose Inequality, Not Cops
Ron Jacobs
Scott Noble’s History of Resistance
Olivia Alperstein
The Climate Crisis is Also a Health Emergency
David Rosen
Time to Break Up the 21st Century Tech Trusts
George Wuerthner
The Highest Use of Public Forests: Carbon Storage
Ralph Nader
It is Time to Rediscover Print Newspapers
Nick Licata
How SDS Imploded: an Inside Account
Rachel Smolker – Anne Peterman
The GE American Chestnut: Restoration of a Beloved Species or Trojan Horse for Tree Biotechnology?
Sam Pizzigati
Can Society Survive Without Empathy?
Manuel E. Yepe
China and Russia in Strategic Alliance
Patrick Walker
Green New Deal “Climate Kids” Should Hijack the Impeachment Conversation
Colin Todhunter
Encouraging Illegal Planting of Bt Brinjal in India
Robert Koehler
The Armed Bureaucracy
David Swanson
Anyone Who’d Rather Not be Shot Should Read this Book
Jonathan Power
To St. Petersburg With Love
Marc Levy
How to Tell a Joke in Combat
Thomas Knapp
Pork is Not the Problem
Manuel García, Jr.
Global Warming and Solar Minimum: a Response to Renee Parsons
Jill Richardson
Straight People Don’t Need a Parade
B. R. Gowani
The Indian Subcontinent’s Third Partition
Adolf Alzuphar
Diary: The Black Body in LA
Jonah Raskin
‘69 and All That Weird Shit
Michael Doliner
My Surprise Party
Stephen Cooper
The Fullness of Half Pint
Charles R. Larson
Review: Chris Arnade’s “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America”
David Yearsley
Sword and Sheath Songs
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail