Washington-Riyadh: a dangerous friendship
While Obama opened up towards Iran, Trump has boosted the alliance with Riyadh. Let’s see why
- Wednesday, 24 July 2019
President Trump's decision to become a close ally of Saudi Arabia is not particularly surprising. After all, that's what all his predecessors had done, at least since the Khomeini's revolution in Iran, with the sole exception of Barack Obama, who negotiated the nuclear deal with Tehran in the hope of helping the moderate forces to gain a foothold in the Iranian republic.
Where the current head of the White House is concerned, besides the shared economic interests between Washington and Riyadh, there are also personal and national economic issues that egg him on, and the hope that the Saudi realm will help his son-in-law Jared Kushner convince the Palestinians to accept his peace plan with Israel. What possibly escapes Trump is the seriousness of the struggle underway within the Sunni world, and therefore the effects of his taking sides on what are just as historic and vital relations for the Americans, such as those with Turkey and Qatar, without taking into consideration the persistent suspicions of Riyadh's complicit attitude towards a number of terrorist groups.
At a political level, the decisions by the master of the White House to revive its alliance with the Saudis has a number of explanations. The first is the fact that he has always rejected Obama's negotiated approach towards Iran, which led to the nuclear agreement and the hope that this might not only stem the development of atomic weapons, but might also help the moderates to get the better of the regime managed by the Ayatollahs. It's not clear to what extent this change of tack is a result of Trump's geopolitical convictions, or that of his councillors, but in any case the path was set from the very outset of his presidency. After all, Trump made his first visit abroad to Riyadh, where he was welcomed with the highest honours, and where on 20 May 2017 King Salman awarded him the highest civil medal of the realm, the Collar of the Order of Abdulaziz. Trump's hope was that Riyadh might become the cornerstone of Middle Eastern stability, and would clamp down on those supporting of terrorist groups like IS as a way of opposing Iran, seeing as there was now no longer any need to back them with Washington once again firmly allied with the Sunnis. This stability was also supposed to involve Israel, Trump's main point of reference in the area, in the belief that Saudi Arabia could force the Palestinians to accept the peace plan drawn up by his son-in-law Jared Kushner. The Jerusalem Post has in fact suggested that prince Mohammed bin Salman offered Abbas ten billion dollars to sign the agreement, so far unsuccessfully.
The other reason that convinced the president of the United States to revive relations with Riyadh is economic. Some cynics believe there may even be personal interests involved. In 1991, when he was in serious financial trouble, Donald Trump sold his personal yacht for 20 million dollars to prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who in 1995 bought the Hotel Plaza off him for 325 million dollars with the help of investors in Singapore. In the meantime Alwaleed has fallen from grace, but in 2001 the Saudis purchased the entire 45th floor of Trump World Tower, which they later partially transformed into their UN mission. The same future president, during an electoral rally held in Alabama in 2015, was very explicit about these connections: "Saudi Arabia – and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me, they spend $40 million, $50 million – am I supposed to dislike them?.”
Besides the personal interests, there are also national ones. During his first trip to Riyadh, the White House chief said he'd signed agreements whereby the realm undertook to purchase arms from the United States to the tune of 110 billion dollars. That wasn't totally accurate, but these trades do exist and they're no chickenfeed. The Energy Secretary Rick Perry has also secretly approved the sale of nuclear reactors to the Saudis, which has led to quite an amount of controversy. If Saudi Arabia is thinking of promoting alternative energy sources, it could easily try solar energy, but atomic technology can also serve military purposes, which is probably what the operation is all about. Trump has recently said that Riyadh has spent 450 billion dollars in the United States. This figure is up for debate, and Trump himself has revealed that he had a heated phone call with the King in which he urged him to do more in terms of defence spending for his country. In spite of these altercations, there's no question that the economic ties are strong and have a considerable impact on the geopolitical relationship. The United States have for example asked Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to keep the cost of the barrel in check after the decision to impose sanctions to block Iranian exports. The black oil in the end could become a bone of contention between the two countries, seeing as increased American extraction is likely to dent sales of oil from Saudi wells, but so far no one is complaining too loudly.
These are the main reasons why Trump is keen to promote relations with Saudi Arabia, and even avoided criticising it after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or for having jailed American citizens. The economic and geopolitical interests are too overwhelming for human rights considerations to get in their way. Two factors however, could still threaten or at least complicate matters between the two countries.
The first is support for terrorism, which is a problem that still needs addressing. The Saudi aid that was poured into IS to oppose Iran, and Assad before that, is probably running out, but this didn't prevent the Foreign Policy magazine from publishing a recent article entitled: "It's time for Saudi Arabia to stop supporting extremism". Trump in essence has given Riyadh all the backing he can and has even been prepared to put the Muslim Brotherhood on the wanted terrorist list, but he hasn't obtained the kind of curbs on radical Wahhabism he was hoping for in return.
This point is connected to the second issue, which is the long-standing feud that is still rankling in the region, and putting the spanner in the United States' plans. The clash between Iranian Shiites and the Sunnis is now compounded by a major rift in the latter's camp. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE are on one side, allied by their deep rooted hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Turkey and Qatar are instead supporters. This face off has indirect repercussions on Italy, because it is very much at the heart of the proxy war being waged in Libya, where the Sunnis in the first group back general Haftar, while the second are on the side of the Serraj government. By opting in favour of Saudi Arabia, Trump has also chosen sides in this particular dispute. He has thus managed to put Rome's nose out, seeing as it has always sided with Serraj, but it has also led to an almost complete breakdown in relations with Turkey, a member of NATO and a traditional military ally of the United States, that is now saying it wants to buy missile systems and planes from Russia.
This article is also published in the July/August issue of eastwest.