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 regime is a far cry from his past positions, including his campaign season assertion that the Saudis were behind the 9/11 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 him, 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 regime 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 regime 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 regime’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 regime 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.