When running for president, Donald Trump was no less critical of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than he was of America’s dependent Asian and European allies. It looked like bilateral relations were set to change.
But now President Trump appears to be working more closely with the Saudi monarchy. He recently said he expects the Iranians to call him to make a deal, but we should hope not, lest the administration enshrine Saudi hegemony in the Middle East. That would be in no one’s interest outside of Riyadh.
The kingdom deserved candidate Trump’s scorn. It is a corrupt totalitarian state, long tied financially to terrorists, yet it treats U.S. soldiers as the personal bodyguards of the royals. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recalled meeting King Abdullah, “He wanted a full-scale attack on Iranian military targets, not just the nuclear sites.” This supposed friend of America “was asking the United States to send its sons and daughters into a war with Iran in order to protect the Saudi position in the Gulf and the region, as if we were mercenaries.” From Riyadh’s viewpoint, of course, that is precisely what Americans are.
Yet a succession of Washington paladins continued to profess their friendship for the royals. This reflects shameless cynicism rather than genuine affection. After all, it is oil and natural gas that bring the two nations together rather than shared interests or values. Americans act as if the Saudis might cut off petroleum exports, even though the regime could not survive without the revenue.
Washington’s preference that Saudi Arabia not fall under hostile control was the genesis of the so-called Carter Doctrine, which envisioned a possible Soviet move on the Persian Gulf. However, that threat long ago disappeared. Today the Persian Gulf doesn’t matter much to the United States.
When Trump was elected it looked like the Saudis’ free ride might be over. If so, Riyadh might have had to strengthen security forces created to ensure princely privileges. More seriously, the geriatric monarchy might have had to reform itself to convince the Saudi people to fight on its behalf. Why should anyone die for the royals?
However, the president’s first trip was to Riyadh, where he partied the night away while doing the “sword dance.” Then he peered into the orb, the curious symbol of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s new anti-radicalism center. Given the president’s reaction, some observers speculated that the Saudis had acquired the infamous Eye of Sauron after the destruction of Mordor. President Trump subsequently appeared to have fallen completely under Riyadh’s spell.
Unfortunately, there may be no more malign force in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian state. There is no political or religious liberty—far less liberty than in its infamous rival Iran. Only recently has the crown prince relaxed some social controls while simultaneously cracking down on critics of the monarchy, including women who campaigned for some of the policies he initiated. Politically, the kingdom, also known as KSA, is now less free under supposedly reforming Mohammad bin Salman.
While claiming to combat corruption he has spent lavishly on a yacht and chateau, and apparently art as well. Presumably short on cash, he arrested hundreds of the kingdom’s elite, including the former heir to the throne, forced out to enable his ascension. While targeting potential critics and opponents he initiated an extraordinary shakedown, demanding that those arrested sign over substantial assets to win their freedom. The real crime was the monarchy’s seizure of the nation’s oil assets for its own. He simply redistributed stolen assets among the gangsters, grabbing a much bigger share for himself.
What Riyadh does overseas should be of even greater concern to Washington, however. Years ago the monarchy agreed to promote intolerant, fundamentalist Wahhabism in return for clerical support for the monarchy—Wahhabists enthusiastically preach obedience to the royals. Over the years Saudi Arabia has spent some $100 billion to promote this extremist variant of Islam around the world, including in the United States. In countries such as Bosnia and Kosovo the Saudis have helped radicalize populations previously more secular. Although Wahhabism does not formally advocate terrorism, it is a precursor for violence, treating “the other” with contempt.
Saudi money and personnel long infused terrorist movements, most notably Al Qaeda. The royals resisted American pressure to cut jihadist funding. The KSA had little concern when only Westerners seemed to be at risk. When Al Qaeda targeted the monarchy, however, Riyadh began to take the threat seriously. Now Saudi Arabia purports to be a crusader against terrorism, criticizing Qatar because the latter underwrites critics of the monarchy, who the royals consider to be “terrorists.”
Moreover, MbS, as the crown prince is known, has proved to be a reckless adventurer, ever-ready to destabilize countries, launch wars, brutalize civilians, underwrite tyranny, and commit any crime to enhance his nation’s influence. The attack on Yemen, to return a puppet regime to power, may be Riyadh’s most irresponsible act of late. The monarchy and its allies have killed thousands of civilians and turned one of many internal Yemeni conflicts into a sectarian war, inviting Iran to intervene to bleed the kingdom.
The KSA also backed radical Islamist insurgents in an attempt to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, essentially the same strategy which turned disastrously wrong in both Iraq and Libya. Riyadh intervened militarily to support Bahrain’s authoritarian, minority Sunni monarchy against the majority Shia population. The Saudis generously underwrite the el-Sisi dictatorship in Egypt, which is more ruthless and brutal than Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Perhaps even more incredibly, last fall MbS invited Lebanon’s prime minister, a sectarian ally, to Saudi Arabia only to detain him and force him to declare his resignation—which he promptly rescinded once international pressure forced his release.
Although MbS struts about the Middle East as if his nation was a colossus, the kingdom has proverbial feet of clay. Tens of billions of dollars in arms purchases from America have pushed the KSA to number three in military outlays worldwide, but the Saudi armed services are not known for their military prowess. Indeed, who wants to fight and die for a corrupt, antiquated, authoritarian monarchy? At least the Iranian regime claims to represent something greater. The Saudi ruling family stands only for self-enrichment.
Yet the Trump administration seems to have anointed the monarchy as its agent. It is reminiscent of the bad old days of Iran’s Shah. The United States helped install him—Iranians still remember the 1953 coup against democracy—and filled his military arsenals. He began Iran’s nuclear program and pushed to expand his nation’s influence, promoting his, not America’s, interest. But his arrogant and criminal reign led to his downfall, and creation of the Islamist Republic.
There’s no need for Washington to take sides between Iran and the KSA. Indeed, as Henry Kissinger suggested of Iran and Iraq when they ferociously battled more than three decades ago, a pity they both can’t lose. If not, then better they balance one another.
However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech about Iran essentially demanded the latter’s surrender: accept Saudi hegemony, disarm in the face of superior Saudi military force, abandon its few regional allies, and beg for Washington’s and Riyadh’s mercy. Pompeo offered a deal that Tehran cannot accept, yet tailor made for the KSA, not the United States. Why this favoritism toward the Saudi dictatorship?
The United States claims to fear Iranian dominance in the Middle East, but that neither threatens America—which is a superpower, if anyone has forgotten—nor is it likely. The Islamic Republic is beset with domestic economic and political difficulties. It’s alleged foreign “empire” is made up of geopolitical dregs that no one else wants: a minor role in war-ravaged Yemen; a bit more influence in wrecked Syria; some clout in badly divided and burdened Lebanon; and a contested stake in neighboring Shia Iraq. In every case it has advanced only because of its adversaries: the United States destroyed Iraq’s Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein; the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other states attempted to overthrow al-Assad, who looked to Tehran for aid; with Washington’s backing Riyadh invaded Yemen, forcing Houthi rebels to seek assistance from Iran; and both Israel and America intervened in Lebanon, fostering the Shia movement Hezbollah.
Moreover, arrayed against Tehran are the KSA and United Arab Emirates, and countries essentially rented with Gulf money: Bahrain, Egypt, and Sudan. The Iraqis, though majority Shiite, don’t want to be run by Iran. Russia seems ambivalent at best about a large Iranian role in Syria. Europe is nervous and hostile. Together they deploy more than enough power to constrain Iran.
Candidate Trump appeared to understand Saudi Arabia. President Trump acts like any other royal retainer, just one who happens to serve in Washington rather than Riyadh. Instead of campaigning to hand the Middle East over to MbS and the royals, the Trump administration should stand for America’s interests.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.