Apparently, Donald Trump needs the Saudis. And every U.S. president going back to FDR needed them. We need their oil. Sometimes, we need their military muscle when we face an ornery Middle East dictator like Saddam Hussein. George Bush made common cause with the Saudis in their jihad against their Shiite enemy, Iran. He even invited the King to his Texas ranch, a perk rarely offered to foreign leaders. In short, Saudi Arabia is a country no one likes very much, but which so many find so convenient to ally themselves with.
But do we need Saudi Arabia? I think not. With U.S. oil exploration at a fever pitch, the Saudis are no longer the only game in town when it comes to oil production. They are one among many. In 1973, it could bring the west and its economy to its knees in retaliation for sending a lifeline to Israel during the October War. But it no longer holds such sway.
The House of Saud has created a Wahabi fundamentalist horror show. It provided 15 of the 19 hijackers who attacked the U.S. on 9/11. While it paternalistically provides immense luxury for its citizens, so buying their loyalty, this comes at a steep price in liberty and individual rights. Women are relegated to the back rooms.
While the Saudis were a key player in the international coalition which defeated Saddam in Kuwait and vanquished him decisively and finally in 2003, the Saudis have also played a ruinous role in a number of other regional conflicts. In Syria, they funded and armed some of the worst of the Sunni Islamist groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad. In Yemen, Crown Prince Mohammed ibn Salman (MBS) instigated his own war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. He pursued this disastrous conflict in large part based on the dubious belief that the Houthis were a creature of the hated Iranians. So far, 10,000 Yemeni have died and 8-million are on the brink of starvation. All because of the insulted vanity of a 32-year-old Saudi mobster.
During the Obama years, Saudi Arabia’s rulers were extremely displeased with the U.S. president’s pivot toward Iran. They believed, along with Israel’s prime minister, that Iran sought a stockpile of nuclear weapons; and that any appeasement would bring that day closer. They detested the P5+1 nuclear agreement spearheaded by the Obama administration and its European allies. That’s in part, why the Saudis turned away from the U.S. and made common cause with a former enemy, the Israelis.
Trump turns back the clock in Saudi-U.S. relationship
Donald Trump, when he assumed the presidency, reverted to the conventional U.S. alliance with the House of Saud; and did so with a vengeance. His very first foreign trip was to the Middle East, where he was showered with gifts by MBS and his father, the King. Then Trump negotiated a colossal arms-deal with them valued by some at $110-billion. If there is one thing Trump values above all else as president, it’s creating jobs. Along with those dollar signs floating through his head are the tens of thousands of jobs sustained by these arms sales.
The icing on the cake of this close relationship is the princeling bromance between Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and MBS. They have spent a great deal of quality time together. As Kushner was also tasked with consummating the “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians, he saw in MBS an Arab enforcer who could discipline the Arab side and bring all the major players into line. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
After Trump peremptorily moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the disputed city, all hell broke loose. Months later in Gaza, Palestinians commenced the Great March of Return in which over 200 Gazans have been murdered by IDF snipers. As a result, relations between the Palestinians leadership, and both the Israelis and Americans have broken down.
Though MBS summoned Abbas to his royal palace and threatened to topple him if he didn’t acquiesce in the U.S. plan, the Palestinian managed what little bit of spine he had left and refused to go along. Now, MBS has been proven to be an empty suit as far as bringing along his own Arab brethren.
Add to all this last week’s brutal murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Turkey. The calculations leading to the decision to assassinate Khashoggi were allegedly made by none other than MBS himself, who apparently could not stand having an intelligent articulate countryman criticizing him in the pages of some of the world’s foremost newspapers. Now, the House of Saud appears to be itself to be teetering on the brink.
Trump Awakens from Slumber
In recent days, the U.S. president has awoken from his somnolence and warned Saudi Arabia of “severe punishment” if its complicity in the murder is proven. MBS has reacted with predictable truculence threatening that any such act against his country will be met with a strong response. That means, of course, that the Saudis might turn to Russia or China to buy those $110-billion in weapons. But in the end we must determine who needs whom more. The truth is that we can survive without selling the Saudis our most advanced weapons systems. But once their fellow Arabs and citizens know that we may no longer prop up this dictatorial dynasty, its royal days may be numbered.
The Crown Prince’s vanity project is Saudi Vision 2030, a plan to dramatically transform the Kingdom’s economy and social structure in preparation for the eventual decline of oil as the nation’s sole major export. An annual conference, known as Davos in the Desert, will commence in eight days. But corporate CEOs, media outlets, and major corporations are fleeing the conference as fast as their feet will carry them. They will gladly take the money of dictators as long as they can do so out of the glare of cameras and the public eye; and not be associated with cold-blooded murder.
The Saudi stock market is also in free-fall. It lost 4% of its value in a single day recently.
We Created a Monster
Looking back at Saudi history, one sees the hand of western colonial powers, especially the U.S. in creating the Saudi dynasty and propping it up at key junctures. Not only have the Saudis produced the oil fueling the world economy, they have been the enforcers in the region for western geo-strategic interests.
During the Arab Spring, when the eyes of the world were upon nations seeking an end of corrupt strongman rule, the U.S. turned its back on these grassroots movements when as the Old Guard mounted a counter-attack to preserve its power and prerogatives. The possibility that populist-Islamists might take power, who would chart an independent course that could conflict with our interests, frightened us into silence. Western silence allowed the Saudis to intervene militarily to squelch the democracy movement in Bahrain.
When the Egyptian military junta mounted a coup against the democratically-elected government, at the urging of the Saudis, the west again stood by largely silent. No one in the west wanted another Islamist government like the one in Turkey and they were content to see Morsi overthrown. Though there were a few critical official statements, the world stood largely by as the new regime murdered thousands of Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in the streets of Cairo.
When the U.S. and Israel sought to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program, they turned to the Saudis who funded the campaign. It included multiple components: the assassination of nuclear scientists and the destruction of Iran’s major missile base. Investigative journalist, Barry Lando, wrote:
A friend, with good sources in the Israeli government, claims that the head of Israel’s Mossad has made several trips to deal with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia—one of the results: an agreement that the Saudis would bankroll the series of assassinations of several of Iran’s top nuclear experts that have occurred over the past couple of years. The amount involved, my friend claims, was $1 billion dollars. A sum, he says, the Saudis considered cheap for the damage done to Iran’s nuclear program.
As background to his story, Yerushalmi, cited a recent speech by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Nethanyahu, referring to the possibility that Arab states, which privately maintain better relations with Israel today than does the European union, would do so publicly if peace were to break out.
“Nethanyahu,” wrote the Israeli reporter, “referred almost certainly to Saudi Arabia which finances the expenses of the enormous campaign which we are conducting against Iran.”
When the Syrian conflict began, western powers sought the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. To do this, they once again called on Saudi Arabia and its satellites, UAE and to a lesser extent, Qatar, to fund Sunni Islamist militias. They recruited personnel, then armed, equipped and trained them to battle government forces. Though at one time, we in the west liked to think of them as a reasonable alternative to the Assad regime, they were in truth as ruthless and brutal and Assad. Furthermore, the billions spent to prop up this insurgency was entirely wasted. Thanks to support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, Assad has emerged victorious.
No Shared Values
All things considered, we in the west have precious little in common with the Saudis. They are a fundamentalist Islamist sect ruled by a kleptocratic dynasty which ruthlessly murders even the mildest of critics. As a military power, Saudi Arabia is of questionable value. Its idea of waging war against an enemy is to bomb civilian populations centers, including buses full of children from the air. It has failed to subdue the Houthis. It failed to topple Bashar in Syria. It has failed to rein in its regional rival, Iran. Saudi Arabia is a paper tiger.
Buzzfeed recently noted U.S. public opinion polls indicating how poorly the House of Saud is perceived here:
A February Gallup poll found that 55% of Americans held unfavorable views of Saudi Arabia, while a recent and still unpublished survey by Data for Progress, a progressive polling group, showed that 48% want to end US support for the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen, while only 20% want to continue it.
In the same poll, only 31% had a favorable view of the Kingdom. In light of recent events, that number would be even lower today.
I would suggest that those who plan to run as liberal or progressive Democrats (hear that, Bernie?) should adopt a new approach to the Saudis. They should no longer be the Chosen Ones in the Middle East. The future of the region does not belong to the Old Guard, the strongmen, the aging kleptocrats. Some of the countries they rule may be wealthy now due to their oil reserves, but that cannot last forever. Once the winds of the world economy shift away from conventional resources and turn to alternative energy sources, the rigid authoritarian nature of these regimes will leave them unable to compete in this new age.
While Iran is by no means a perfect country, it is at least a nation which has adopted some democratic forms (even if they are not fully developed). Though it too is beset by a religious fundamentalist mindset, the clerics do not rule as dictators as the royals do in Saudi Arabia. Iran is a nation bursting with youth and innovation. Its population (excluding the clerical hardliners), despite decades of hostility from the west, is fundamentally open to developing relations with it. The future of the Middle East lies with countries like Iran. Until a few years ago, I would have added Turkey to this list of promising countries, but alas Erdogan’s power grab and recent economic troubles seems to have relegated it to a backwater for the time being.
As I wrote above, Iran’s leadership is deeply flawed. Its governance is by no means fully democratic. It continues to repress a free press and holds numerous political prisoners. But the best way to influence the future of that country is through engagement. Obama’s nuclear deal represented a beginning. One which, unfortunately, has been squashed by the Trump administration.
There is far more potential for Iran to gradually open as a society than there is in Saudi Arabia. Far more voices there exert pressure for reform.
The next Democratic president (I am assuming that Trump will be defeated in 2020 which, though an uncertain proposition, seems likely) must re-evaluate our historic ties to the Saudis. We must cut the Gordian Knot and shift away from a most-favored-nation type of relationship. The Saudis bring us nothing but heartache. Supporting their stratagems in places like Syria and Yemen have added fuel to the hatred felt by the Arab and Muslim world toward the U.S.
The Saudis demand absolute loyalty. They cannot countenance a balanced set of relations among themselves, the U.S., and their rivals in the region. Therefore, if they make us choose, we must turn to a nation which understands a diversity of interests and alliances. That nation should be Iran.
This will, of course, impact our relations with Israel, which has thrown in its lot with the Saudis as they jointly plot to topple the Iranian regime. In planning our foreign policy in the region, the next Democratic administration should expect the continuation of the current Israeli far-right government, even after Netanyahu leaves the scene. There is no realistic opportunity for a pragmatic centrist government. Even if Yair Lapid (a so-called centrist) were to become the next prime minister, he would not alter Israeli policy toward the Palestinians or making peace with them.
Therefore, a future U.S. administration should expect continuing alienation with Israel’s leadership. We cannot wait forever for an Israeli government which will do what’s necessary to create a lasting peace. We must pursue our own path separate from this suffocating status quo. We should explore improving ties with the Palestinians even if we determine not to exert the political capital necessary to force Israel into a genuine peace process (which, given the stranglehold of the Israel Lobby on Israel policy, seems likely). In many ways, Palestinians are a population similar to Iran’s: young, educated (despite the strictures of Israeli Occupation), ambitious, energetic, competitive, and western-oriented.
The current Middle East offers a past and a future. The past belongs to the MBSes of the region. The future belongs to those who embrace change and a transition to a different economy no longer based on the resources of the past. Will the Democratic candidates for the next presidential elections have the guts and prescience to understand this and act upon it?