Trump’s Dangerous Love Affair With the Saudi Royal Family

How our new commander in chief is intensifying the U.S.-Saudi “special friendship” that’s destabilizing the Middle East.

William D. Hartung June 20, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump receives the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. (Photo by: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

This post first appeared at TomDis­patch.

The royal family wanted to bring Qatar to heel after it failed to jump enthusiastically onto the Saudi-led anti-Iranian bandwagon.

At this point, it’s no great sur­prise when Don­ald Trump walks away from past state­ments in ser­vice to some impulse of the moment. Nowhere, how­ev­er, has such a shift been more extreme or its poten­tial con­se­quences more dan­ger­ous than in his sud­den love affair with the Sau­di roy­al fam­i­ly. It could in the end desta­bi­lize the Mid­dle East in ways not seen in our life­times (which, giv­en the grow­ing chaos in the region, is no small thing to say).

Trump’s new­found ardor for the Sau­di régime is a far cry from his past posi­tions, includ­ing his cam­paign sea­son asser­tion that the Saud­is were behind the 911 attacks and com­plaints, as recent­ly as this April, that the Unit­ed States was los­ing a tremen­dous amount of mon­ey” defend­ing the king­dom. That was yet anoth­er exam­ple of the sort of bad deal that Pres­i­dent Trump was going to set right as part of his Amer­i­ca First” for­eign policy.

Giv­en this back­ground, it came as a sur­prise to pun­dits, politi­cians and for­eign pol­i­cy experts alike when the pres­i­dent chose Riyadh, the cap­i­tal of Sau­di Ara­bia, as the very first stop on his very first over­seas trip. This was clear­ly meant to under­score the impor­tance his admin­is­tra­tion was sud­den­ly plac­ing on the need to bol­ster the long-stand­ing U.S.-Saudi alliance.

Mind­ful of Trump’s van­i­ty, the Sau­di gov­ern­ment rolled out the red car­pet for our nar­cis­sist-in-chief, lin­ing the streets for miles with alter­nat­ing U.S. and Sau­di flags, huge images of which were pro­ject­ed onto the Ritz Carl­ton hotel where Trump was stay­ing. (Before his arrival, in a sign of the psy­cho­log­i­cal astute­ness of his Sau­di hosts, the hotel pro­ject­ed a five-sto­ry-high image of Trump him­self onto its façade, pair­ing it with a sim­i­lar­ly huge and flat­ter­ing pho­to of the country’s ruler, King Salman.) His hosts also put up bill­boards with pic­tures of Trump and Salman over the slo­gan togeth­er we pre­vail.” What exact­ly the two coun­tries were to pre­vail against was left open to inter­pre­ta­tion. It is, how­ev­er, unlike­ly that the Saud­is were think­ing about Trump’s much-denounced ene­my, ISIS — giv­en that Sau­di planes, deep into a war in neigh­bor­ing Yemen, have rarely joined Washington’s air war against that out­fit. More like­ly, what they had in mind was their country’s bit­ter region­al rival Iran.

The agen­da planned for Trump’s stay includ­ed an anti-ter­ror­ism sum­mit attend­ed by 50 lead­ers from Arab and Mus­lim nations, a con­cert by coun­try singer Toby Kei­th and an exhi­bi­tion game by the Harlem Glo­be­trot­ters. Then there were the strange touch­es like Pres­i­dent Trump, King Salman and Egypt­ian Pres­i­dent Abdel Fat­tah el-Sisi lay­ing hands on a futur­is­ti­cal­ly glow­ing orb — images of which then cir­cled the plan­et — in a cer­e­mo­ny inau­gu­rat­ing a new Glob­al Cen­ter for Com­bat­ting Extrem­ist Ide­ol­o­gy, and Trump’s awk­ward par­tic­i­pa­tion in an all-male sword dance.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly enough, the pres­i­dent was pleased with the spec­ta­cle staged in his hon­or, say­ing of the anti-ter­ror­ism sum­mit in one of his many sig­na­ture flights of hyper­bole, There has nev­er been any­thing like it before, and per­haps there nev­er will be again.”

Here, how­ev­er, is a state­ment that shouldn’t qual­i­fy as hyper­bole: nev­er have such prepa­ra­tions for a pres­i­den­tial vis­it paid such quick div­i­dends. On arriv­ing home, Trump jumped at the chance to embrace a fierce Sau­di attempt to block­ade and iso­late its tiny neigh­bor Qatar, the poli­cies of whose emir have long irri­tat­ed them. The Saud­is claimed to be focused on that country’s alleged role in financ­ing ter­ror­ist groups in the region (a cat­e­go­ry they them­selves fit into remark­ably well). More like­ly, how­ev­er, the roy­al fam­i­ly want­ed to bring Qatar to heel after it failed to jump enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly onto the Sau­di-led anti-Iran­ian bandwagon.

Trump, who clear­ly knew noth­ing about the sub­ject, accept­ed the Sau­di move with alacrity and at face val­ue. In his nor­mal fash­ion, he even tried to take cred­it for it, tweet­ing, Dur­ing my recent trip to the Mid­dle East I stat­ed that there can no longer be fund­ing of Rad­i­cal Ide­ol­o­gy. Lead­ers point­ed to Qatar — look!” And accord­ing to Trump, the his­toric impact of his trav­els hard­ly stopped there. As he also tweet­ed: So good to see Sau­di Ara­bia vis­it with the King and 50 coun­tries pay­ing off … Per­haps it will be the begin­ning of the end of the hor­ror of terrorism.” 

Bruce Riedel of the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion hit the nail on the head when he com­ment­ed that the Saud­is played Don­ald Trump like a fid­dle. He unwit­ting­ly encour­aged their worst instincts toward their neigh­bors.” The New York Times cap­tured one like­ly impact of the Sau­di move against Qatar when it report­ed, Ana­lysts said Mr. Trump’s pub­lic sup­port for Sau­di Ara­bia … sent a chill through oth­er Gulf States, includ­ing Oman and Kuwait, for fear that any coun­try that defies the Saud­is or the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates could face ostracism as Qatar has.”

And then came Trump…

And what pre­cise­ly are the Saud­is’ instincts toward their neigh­bors? The lead­ers in Riyadh, led by King Salman’s 31-year-old son, Sau­di Defense Min­is­ter and deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, are tak­ing the gloves off in an increas­ing­ly aggres­sive bid for region­al dom­i­nance aimed at iso­lat­ing Iran. The defense min­is­ter and poten­tial future leader of the king­dom, whose poli­cies have been described as reck­less and impul­sive, under­scored the new, harsh­er line on Iran in an inter­view with Sau­di-owned Al Ara­biya TV in which he said, We will not wait until the bat­tle is in Sau­di Ara­bia, but we will work so the bat­tle is there in Iran.”

The open­ing sal­vo in Sau­di Arabia’s anti-Iran cam­paign came in March 2015, when a Sau­di-led coali­tion, includ­ing small­er Gulf petro-states (Qatar among them) and Egypt, inter­vened mil­i­tar­i­ly in a chaot­ic sit­u­a­tion in Yemen in an effort to rein­stall Abdu Rab­bu Man­sour Hadi as the pres­i­dent of that coun­try. They clear­ly expect­ed a quick vic­to­ry over their ill-armed ene­mies and yet, more than two years lat­er, in a war that has grown ever harsh­er, they have in fact achieved lit­tle. Hadi, a pro-Sau­di leader, had served as that country’s inter­im pres­i­dent under an agree­ment that, in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2012, oust­ed long­stand­ing Yemeni auto­crat Ali Abdul­lah Saleh. In Jan­u­ary 2015, Hadi him­self was deposed by an alliance of Houthi rebels and rem­nants of forces loy­al to for­mer pres­i­dent Saleh.

The Saud­is — now joined by Trump and his for­eign pol­i­cy team — have char­ac­ter­ized the con­flict as a war to blunt Iran­ian influ­ence and the Houthi rebels have been cast as the vas­sals of Tehran. In real­i­ty, they have long­stand­ing polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic griev­ances that pre­date the cur­rent con­flict and they would undoubt­ed­ly be fight­ing at this moment with or with­out sup­port from Iran. As Mid­dle East­ern expert Thomas Juneau recent­ly not­ed in the Wash­ing­ton Post, Tehran’s sup­port for the Houthis is lim­it­ed, and its influ­ence in Yemen is mar­gin­al. It is sim­ply inac­cu­rate to claim that the Houthis are Iran­ian proxies.”

The Sau­di-Emi­rati inter­ven­tion in Yemen has had dis­as­trous results. Thou­sands of civil­ians have been killed in an indis­crim­i­nate bomb­ing cam­paign that has tar­get­ed hos­pi­tals, mar­ket­places, civil­ian neigh­bor­hoods and even a funer­al, in actions that Con­gress­man Ted Lieu (D‑CA) has said look like war crimes.” The Sau­di bomb­ing cam­paign has, in addi­tion, been enabled by Wash­ing­ton, which has sup­plied the king­dom with bombs, includ­ing clus­ter muni­tions and air­craft, while pro­vid­ing aer­i­al refu­el­ing ser­vices to Sau­di planes to ensure longer mis­sions and the abil­i­ty to hit more tar­gets. It has also shared intel­li­gence on tar­get­ing in Yemen.

The destruc­tion of that country’s port facil­i­ties and the impo­si­tion of a naval block­ade have had an even more dev­as­tat­ing effect, rad­i­cal­ly reduc­ing the abil­i­ty of aid groups to get food, med­i­cine and oth­er essen­tial sup­plies into a coun­try now suf­fer­ing from a major out­break of cholera and on the brink of a mas­sive famine. This sit­u­a­tion will only be made worse if the coali­tion tries to retake the port of Hodei­dah, the entry point for most of the human­i­tar­i­an aid still get­ting into Yemen. Not only has the U.S.-backed Sau­di war sparked a human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis, but it has inad­ver­tent­ly strength­ened al-Qae­da in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la, which has increased its influ­ence in Yemen while the Sau­di- and Houthi-led coali­tions are busy fight­ing each other.

Trump’s all-in sup­port for the Saud­is in its war doesn’t, in fact, come out of the blue. Despite some inter­nal divi­sions over the wis­dom of doing so, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion also sup­port­ed the Sau­di war effort in a major way. This was part of an attempt to reas­sure the roy­als that the Unit­ed States was still on their side and would not tilt towards Iran in the wake of an agree­ment to cap and reverse that country’s nuclear program.

It was only after con­cert­ed pres­sure from Con­gress and a coali­tion of peace, human rights and human­i­tar­i­an aid groups that the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion final­ly took a con­crete, if lim­it­ed, step to express oppo­si­tion to the Sau­di tar­get­ing of civil­ians in Yemen. In a Decem­ber 2016 deci­sion, it sus­pend­ed a sale of laser-guid­ed bombs and oth­er pre­ci­sion-guid­ed muni­tions to their mil­i­tary. The move out­raged the Saud­is, but proved at best a halfway mea­sure as the refu­el­ing of Sau­di air­craft con­tin­ued, and none of rest of the record $115 bil­lion in U.S. weapon­ry offered to that coun­try dur­ing the Oba­ma years was affected.

And then came Trump. His admin­is­tra­tion has dou­bled down on the Sau­di war in Yemen by lift­ing the sus­pen­sion of the bomb deal, despite the objec­tions of a Sen­ate coali­tion led by Chris Mur­phy (D‑CT), Rand Paul (R‑KY), and Al Franken (D‑MN) that recent­ly mus­tered an unprece­dent­ed 47 votes against Trump’s offer of pre­ci­sion-guid­ed bombs to Riyadh. Defense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis has advo­cat­ed yet more vig­or­ous sup­port for the Sau­di-led inter­ven­tion, includ­ing addi­tion­al plan­ning assis­tance and yet more intel­li­gence shar­ing — but not, for the moment, the intro­duc­tion of U.S. troops. Although the Trump for­eign pol­i­cy team has refused to endorse a pro­pos­al by the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, one of the Sau­di coali­tion mem­bers, to attack the port at Hodei­dah, it’s not clear if that will hold.

A parade for an Amer­i­can President?

In addi­tion to Trump’s kind words on Twit­ter, the clear­est sign of his administration’s uncrit­i­cal sup­port for the Sau­di régime has been the offer of an astound­ing $110 bil­lion worth of arms to the king­dom, a sum almost equal to the record lev­els reached dur­ing all eight years of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. (This may, of course, have been part of the point, show­ing that Pres­i­dent Trump could make a big­ger, bet­ter deal than that slack­er Oba­ma, while sup­port­ing what he described as jobs, jobs, jobs” in the Unit­ed States.)

Like all things Trumpian, how­ev­er, that $110 bil­lion fig­ure proved to be an exag­ger­a­tion. Tens of bil­lions of dol­lars worth of arms includ­ed in the pack­age had already been promised under Oba­ma, and tens of bil­lions more rep­re­sent promis­es that, experts sus­pect, are unlike­ly to be kept. But that still leaves a huge pack­age, one that, accord­ing to the Pen­ta­gon, will include more than 100,000 bombs of the sort that can be used in the Yemen war, should the Saud­is choose to do so. All that being said, the most impor­tant aspect of the deal may be polit­i­cal — Trump’s way of telling my friend King Salman,” as he now calls him, that the Unit­ed States is firm­ly in his camp. And this is, in fact, the most trou­bling devel­op­ment of all.

It’s bad enough that the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion allowed itself to be dragged into an ill-con­ceived, coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, and region­al­ly desta­bi­liz­ing war in Yemen. Trump’s uncrit­i­cal sup­port of Sau­di for­eign pol­i­cy could have even more dan­ger­ous con­se­quences. The Saud­is are more intent than Trump’s own advis­ers (dis­tinct­ly a crew of Ira­nophobes) on ratch­et­ing up ten­sions with Iran. It’s no small thing, for instance, that Sec­re­tary of Defense James Mat­tis, who has assert­ed that Iran is the sin­gle most endur­ing threat to sta­bil­i­ty and peace in the Mid­dle East,” and who advo­cat­ed U.S. mil­i­tary attacks on that coun­try dur­ing his tenure as head of the U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, looks sober-mind­ed com­pared to the Sau­di royals.

If there is even a glim­mer of hope in the sit­u­a­tion, it might lie in the efforts of both Mat­tis and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son to walk back the president’s full-throat­ed sup­port for a Sau­di con­fronta­tion with Qatar. Tiller­son, for instance, has attempt­ed to pur­sue an effort to medi­ate the Sau­di-Qatari dis­pute and has called for a calm and thought­ful dia­logue.” Sim­i­lar­ly, on the same day as Trump tweet­ed in sup­port of the Saud­is, the Pen­ta­gon issued a state­ment prais­ing Qatar’s endur­ing com­mit­ment to region­al secu­ri­ty.” This is hard­ly sur­pris­ing giv­en the rough­ly 10,000 troops the U.S. has at al-Udeid air base in Doha, its cap­i­tal, and the key role that base plays in Washington’s war on ter­ror in the region. It is the largest Amer­i­can base in the Mid­dle East and the for­ward head­quar­ters of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, as well as a pri­ma­ry stag­ing area for the U.S. war on ISIS. The admin­is­tra­tion’s con­fu­sion regard­ing how to deal with Qatar was fur­ther under­scored when Mat­tis and Qatari Defense Min­is­ter Khalid Al-Attiyah signed a $12 bil­lion deal for up to 36 Boe­ing F‑15 com­bat air­craft, bare­ly a week after Pres­i­dent Trump had implied that Qatar was the world cap­i­tal of ter­ror­ist financing.

In a fur­ther pos­si­ble counter to Trump’s aggres­sive stance, Sec­re­tary of Defense Mat­tis has sug­gest­ed that per­haps it’s time to pur­sue a diplo­mat­ic set­tle­ment of the war in Yemen. In April, he told reporters that, in regards to the Sau­di and Emi­rati cam­paign in Yemen, our goal, ladies and gen­tle­man, is for that cri­sis down there, that ongo­ing fight, [to] be put in front of a U.N.-brokered nego­ti­at­ing team and try to resolve this polit­i­cal­ly as soon as pos­si­ble.” Mat­tis went on to decry the num­ber of civil­ians being killed, stat­ing that the war there has sim­ply got to be brought to an end.”

It remains to be seen whether Tillerson’s and Mattis’s con­cil­ia­to­ry words are hints of a pos­si­ble foot on the brake in the Trump admin­is­tra­tion when it comes to build­ing momen­tum for what could, in the end, be a U.S. mil­i­tary strike against Iran, egged on by Don­ald Trump’s good friends in Sau­di Ara­bia. As Ali Vaez of the Inter­na­tion­al Cri­sis Group has not­ed, if the U.S. ends up going to war against Iran, it would make the Afghan and Iraqi con­flicts look like a walk in the park.”

In fact, in a peri­od when the tur­moil has only risen in much of the rest of the Greater Mid­dle East, the Sau­di Ara­bi­an penin­su­la remained rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble, at least until the Sau­di-led coali­tion dras­ti­cal­ly esca­lat­ed the civ­il war in Yemen. The new, more aggres­sive course being pur­sued against the roy­al fam­i­ly in Qatar and in rela­tion to Iran could, how­ev­er, make mat­ters much worse, and fast. Giv­en the sit­u­a­tion in the region today, includ­ing the spread of ter­ror move­ments and fail­ing states, the thought that Sau­di Ara­bia itself might be desta­bi­lized (and Iran with it) should be daunt­ing indeed, though not per­haps for Don­ald Trump.

So far, through a com­bi­na­tion of inter­nal repres­sion and gen­er­ous social ben­e­fits to its cit­i­zens — a form of polit­i­cal bribery designed to buy loy­al­ty — the Sau­di roy­al fam­i­ly has man­aged to avoid the fate of oth­er region­al auto­crats dri­ven from pow­er. But with low oil prices and a cost­ly war in Yemen, the régime is being forced to reduce the social spend­ing that has helped cement its hold on pow­er. It’s pos­si­ble that fur­ther mil­i­tary adven­tures, cou­pled with a back­lash against its repres­sive poli­cies, could break what ana­lysts Sarah Chayes and Alex de Waal have described as the cur­rent régime’s brit­tle hold on pow­er.” In oth­er words, what a time for the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to offer its all-in sup­port for the plans of an aggres­sive yet frag­ile régime whose reck­less poli­cies could even spark a region­al war.

Maybe it’s time for oppo­nents of a stepped-up U.S. mil­i­tary role in the Mid­dle East to throw Don­ald Trump a big, glitzy parade aimed at boost­ing his ego and damp­en­ing his enthu­si­asm for the Sau­di Roy­al fam­i­ly. It might not change his poli­cies, but at least it would get his attention.

William D. Har­tung is a senior fel­low at the World Pol­i­cy Insti­tute and the direc­tor of the Arms Trade Resource Center.
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