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Without Reform, Trump’s Embrace of MBS Will Haunt the United States


President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House (Photo: The White House. Source: Wikicommons)

Hossein Askari
21st Century Wire

President Trump has steadfastly refused to point the finger at Mohammad bin Salman, aka MBS, for ordering the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and contributor to the Washington Post. Trump reiterated his skepticism about reports of MBS’ responsibility for that heinous crime at a news conference after meeting the Saudi prince in Osaka over the weekend. He also crowed about other reasons for his friendly relationship with the al-Sauds, the rulers of Saudi Arabia — they are great allies, they buy lots of things from the U.S., not just military hardware, and they invest in the United States, creating thousands of jobs. Trump threw around numbers for Saudi purchases that have little or no basis in fact. In the past, he has also said that he loves Saudis because they buy apartments from him and give him money – money that now also appears to be flowing through other channels such as the Trump hotels. It would appear that Trump and America are up for sale as never before.

But has Saudi Arabia been a great ally? Do the two ‘allies’ share common values? Does this over-the-top friendship hold dangers for regional and global U.S. interests? How should the United States handle Saudi Arabia going forward?

Let’s begin by simply remembering a few Saudi transgressions over the last 50 or so years. There was a crippling Arab oil embargo spearheaded by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in 1973/74, resulting in the highest oil prices in real terms, unimaginable gas lines and a recession in the United States. Then there was the secret purchase of Chinese missiles in 1987 (followed by more purchases later), missiles that are capable of reaching most destinations in the Middle East and carrying nuclear warheads. King Fahd entrusted two of his nephews — Bandar bin Sultan and Abdullah bin Faisal al-Turki — with this ever so secret purchase designed to escape detection by U.S. intelligence. After the U.S. discovered the missile acquisition in 1988, the U.S. Ambassador in Riyadh, Hume Horan who was arguably recognized as America’s greatest Arabist at the time — went to the palace (with a Marine escort and a visiting U.S. diplomat) to present King Fahd with America’s strong objection (in diplomatic terms a démarche) sent from Washington. Fahd became enraged. He called the U.S. Ambassador names and told him to get out of his country! Presumably, Fahd did this because he had recently discovered that Horan’s biological father was an Iranian diplomat (Abdullah Entezam) and thus a Shia Muslim. Fahd thought that Horan, who was in the habit of conversing in fluent classical Arabic (to Fahd’s chagrin) with Saudi religious leaders, had engineered and possibly even authored the démarche. Horan was instructed by the State Department not to disclose anything about the meeting for fear that it would damage relations with Fahd. Horan’s career was essentially brought to an end to keep Fahd happy! This may have been a first for the U.S. — to do nothing about the mistreatment of a prominent ambassador.

But the list of Saudi transgressions continues. Since about 1980, the al-Sauds have financed radical religious madrassas around the world that indoctrinate young Muslims with Saudi Arabia’s extreme interpretation of Islam. In their textbooks, they teach hatred of the West and for those who follow a different interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia produced Osama bin-Laden, al-Qaeda and 9/11, with 15 of the 19 hijackers coming from Saudi Arabia, and 2 from the United Arab Emirates. Al-Qaeda, though morphed, is still alive and it has the goal of throwing out all infidels, principally the United States, from Saudi Arabia. In 2017, MBS engineered a blockade of Qatar, a country allied with the United States and housing America’s largest and most critical military base in the region. Among other aims MBS wanted Qatar to reign in the freedom of the media in Qatar, principally Al-Jazeera, because it threatened Saudi Arabia’s absolute censorship; he demanded that Qatar end all support for the Muslim Brotherhood because he saw the message of the Brotherhood and its version of Islam as a threat al-Saud absolute rule; and he pressured Qatar to be less accommodating to Iran. Then there are MBS’s regional adventures, with the United Arab Emirates in tow and with occasional support from Egypt. These undertakings may well drag the U.S. into unintended conflicts and endanger U.S. regional interests. In Yemen, with U.S. military hardware, intelligence and mid-air refueling, he is carrying out what may be the most tragic genocide of our time. In the Sudan, MBS is supporting the military leader, General Hamdan, who formerly commandeered the brutal Janjaweed militias, in a regime that has butchered peaceful protestors seeking a return to civilian rule. In Libya, he is funding and supporting the warlord General Haftar who is waging war against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli and who, in the process, is attacking Turkey’s (a member of NATO) assets in Libya. In the latter two adventures, MBS is in fact in direct contravention with stated U.S. policies. Such bloody undertakings will create thousands of enemies seeking revenge.

How is this a great ally?

Shouldn’t even casual allies at least share some common values? Nothing could be further from the truth. Saudi Arabia prohibits adherence to any other religion besides its fanatic brand of Islam, a brand that it is hell-bent on spreading around the world. In Saudi Arabia, there is no selection/election of rulers. Rulers are not answerable to the people. There is little respect for basic human rights. The judiciary is not independent. There is no freedom of the press. All media is censored. Torture and unlawful incarceration are an everyday occurrence. There is no barrier between the national treasury — with its revenues essentially derived from oil that in Islam is the heritage of all current and future generations of citizens — and the King’s personal piggy bank. Al-Saud access to the Treasury (checks to all princes with their size determined by rank and distribution entrusted to a small cadre of loyal Bedouins from Mecca) and all disbursement dictated by the King, today Crown Prince MBS. No shared values there!

But this alliance holds other dangers for the United States. MBS, along with Mohammad bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, are loose cannons in the region, but loose cannons with two overriding objectives. First and foremost, to extinguish any talk of democratic values, human rights, the rule of law and freedom anywhere in the region. Both men see any meaningful reform in the Muslim Middle East as existential dangers to their absolute rule. Their second goal is to get rid of the theocratic regime in Tehran which they see as another threat to their absolute rule. And third, they seek to cement their legitimacy by imposing their radical interpretation of Islam, which they are trying to spread across the Muslim World to become the accepted interpretation of Islam everywhere.

While none of these serve long-term U.S. interests, the third motive could turn out to be the most problematic. The Al-Sauds’ claim to legitimacy is through religion. Mecca and Medina (the holiest places in Islam) are in western Saudi Arabia. But to claim religion as the source of legitimacy, they would surely need to be devout. Not just in the mechanical or ritual aspects of the religion such as acknowledging Allah and praying, but following and upholding the important teachings of Islam — religious freedom, rulers answerable to the people, equality of opportunities for all and the importance of education, hard work, a modest lifestyle, poverty eradication, eradicating corruption and with justice in every aspect of life. You only need eyes to see the lifestyle of MBS and the Al-Sauds, financed by oil, and their treatment of others in the country. Their lifestyle and their governance gives Islam a bad name in the world. This is especially the case in what Westerners hear as ‘Shariah and Islamic law,’ something that these despotic rulers falsely market as coming directly from the Quran. They pretend to represent Islam, but they give Islam a false image that maligns the religion and endangers the United States as the principal backer of the al-Sauds.

If this alliance escapes normal motives, could there be a hidden motive? There is one explanation that comes to mind. The al-Saud system of governance is having money and using it to buy anything and everything. They have learned how to buy loyalty and support. They buy U.S., British and French arms that they cannot use or don’t need in order to get support in these three countries. In the case of the United States, these arms are also pre-positioned for U.S. forces to defend al-Saud rule as needed. In addition to consulting/lobbying contracts, they bestow lavish gifts on those with influence in the countries that they need for support. There are corrupt practices to benefit al-Sauds, with U.S. companies and officials always lurking in the background and ready to accommodate. For instance, in one defense contract with a U.S. company in the 1980s, the company had never delivered such a system; the company bid well below the other bidders; then during the first year of the contract the ‘add-ons’ exceeded the size of the awarded contract. This was such a tell-tale sign of corruption (in this case to benefit the family of King Fahd’s wife) that the U.S. military attaché in Riyadh was alarmed and alerted the U.S. Ambassador of the scandal that could ensue if disclosed. As expected everyone kept quiet. In the case of countries in dire financial need, such as Egypt and Pakistan, they simply and openly buy their governmental support with much needed financial aid. If Saudi Arabia wants a nuclear bomb, I believe they will just buy it from Pakistan. In the case of the Trump Administration, they may have seen an opportunity for over-the-top support through future financial ‘arrangements.’ You can see that the al-Sauds’ gaudy lifestyle surely appeals to some who thirst for money. Through all these channels, MBS may have penetrated the U.S. Administration more than any al-Saud before him. It is telling that after the liberation of Kuwait in the First Gulf War, a member of the al-Saud family said that the United States was a mercenary country and could always be bought!

What then is the best way to forge a mutually beneficial relationship with Saudi Arabia? The United States carries enormous sway with the al-Sauds. Yes, it is a love/hate relationship. They know that they need the United States to survive, and some Americans and American companies simply love the cash they provide. So excuses that some in the State Department make for the U.S. being unable to sway the al-Sauds are simply rubbish. The U.S. should make its support conditional on meaningful reforms over a period of say 20 or so years. This would in turn increase the longer-run stability of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East region, encourage other Muslim countries to reform, enhance religious tolerance and improve East-West relations.

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Hossein Askari is an economist and author on reform and institution building in the Middle East and the Muslim World, economic development and social justice.

READ MORE SAUDI ARABIA NEWS: 21st Century Wire Saudi Arabia Files

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