By Ameer Ali –
The richest and the most enigmatic U.S. President, Donald Trump, has triumphantly concluded his visit to an equally rich and the most conservative Arab kingdom, Saudi Arabia. It is little over seventy-two years since President Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz of the desert kingdom on board the ship USS Quincy on 14 February 1945 on the former’s return from the Yalta conference. Since then oil and armaments, the life blood of modern geopolitics, has made the U.S – Saudi connection rock solid.
From the point of view of the super power Saudi oil has lost its strategic importance because of conservation measures, efficiency of usage and availability of alternative sources of supply. The world has learned to cope with future oil shortages. Yet, the need to sell weapons to keep turning the wheels of U.S military-industrial complex has not saturated. Trump’s successful arms deal with the Saudi regime worth $110 billion may be his crowning achievement so far. Do the Saudis actually need these weapons is a question neither party would wish to entertain. But was that all the purpose of the visit? What did the President offer in return to this lucrative deal?
It is worth recalling that in 2008, King Abdallah wanted the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake”, by which he meant Iran. The Obama administration was wise enough to realise the strategic value of a friendly Iran and took the opposite route of doing a deal with that country that disappointed not only the Saudis but also the Israelis. With Trump in office now the Saudis have found a friend who could fulfil their wish. Yet, it may not that be easy.
On the question of “draining the swamp of extremism” the unpredictable Saudi foreign minister Abdel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir and the equally unpredictable President Trump are on the same side. However, one is not sure whether they agree on the definition of extremism and the identification of extremists.
Saudi Arabian foreign minister’s misadventure in Yemen with military assistance from the U.S. has so far ended in unmitigated disaster and has caused an unimaginable humanitarian crisis. The Yemeni war is still continuing without an end in sight. His second misadventure, once again with U.S agreement, was in Syria aiming to topple Assad’s Alawite regime, which only ended in dragging Russia into the battle field to make matters worse. The West’s historic effort to keep Russian warships out of the Mediterranean waters has at last come to naught.
In both these disasters the apparent victor was Shiite Iran and it was in targeting Iran that Trump and Saudi Arabia are in collusion. However, tackling Iran will be more problematic than it looks. It may become the third Saudi-U.S. misadventure.
Iran will not be a walk over to the U.S-Saudi forces like Saddam Hussain’s Iraq or Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Besides, there is another element that makes Iran problematic and that is the role of ISIS. Trump wants to destroy ISIS but ISIS wants to kill the Shiites and topple the Iran-backed Iraqi government as well as Assad’s regime in Syria, both to the delight of Sunni Saudis. In fact, ISIS is also playing a useful role to another U.S ally Turkey by targeting and killing the Kurdish army. Above all Israel would also prefer ISIS to survive because the latter is also the enemy of Hezbollah. As the saying goes, one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend. All this makes ISIS an important asset in the fight against Iran at least to the Saudis.
It is astonishing to realise how on earth does ISIS keep fighting over the last four years and remaining resilient against the combined might of the U.S – Turkey – Russia- Syria weaponry. Who is supplying them with weapons? What is the role of the Gulf regimes, another ally of U.S., in this power-play? The picture is too messy and the questions are rather irksome.
Again, how can Trump and his Saudi partners talk of Islamic extremism without even mentioning the Wahhabi-Salafist ideology of Saudi Arabia? Isn’t that ideology that produced Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Jamaa’ Islamiyya, the Taliban and even the ISIS in the first place? It was the U.S. that gave a free licence to this ideology to spread even within its own borders simply to counter the spread of Khomeinism. Today the Wahhabi-Salafist ideology has gained global currency through the social media. May be President Trump and his expert advisors do not want to know about this growing ideological phenomenon whose latest demonstration is the Manchester Massacre.
Another issue which is more to the heart of Trump and to which he would have expected Saudi compliance is his commitment to shift U.S’ embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a relocation will obviously provoke the anger of Muslims word wide and Palestinians in particular. However, if Trump could achieve the tacit agreement of the kingdom, which holds the key to the two holiest of mosques in Mecca and Medina to which millions of Muslims go on pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of ritualistic Islam, he would be able to manage Muslim anger and happily convey the agreement to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. It is an open secret, at least among scholars and experts on the Middle East that Saudi Arabia has given up the fight for Palestine long time ago and so are some other Arab countries including King Abdallah’s Jordan and President Sisi’s Egypt. Was the relocation issue discussed at the meeting? Devil is always in the detail and let us hope the real facts and not the ‘alternative facts’ about the U.S-Saudi deal leak out soon.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University