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Trump’s Faltering Middle East Coalition

It is not surprising that Saudi Arabia’s international image has suffered in the 12 months since the brutal murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But nor is it surprising that, once the storm caused by Khashoggi’s murder had blown over, some familiar regional dynamics reasserted themselves.

MADRID – On October 2, it will be a year since the brutal murder in Istanbul of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In June this year, a United Nations report concluded that Saudi Arabia was responsible for his death, and that there was “credible evidence” implicating the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS), in his killing at the Saudi consulate.

It is therefore unsurprising that Saudi Arabia’s international image has suffered during the past 12 months. But nor is it surprising that, once the storm caused by Khashoggi’s murder had blown over, some familiar regional dynamics reasserted themselves.

The most significant setbacks for the Saudi regime over the past year concern the ongoing war in Yemen, one of the main theaters of the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So far in 2019, the United States Congress has adopted several bipartisan resolutions aimed at distancing the US from the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which was instigated by MBS himself. Although US President Donald Trump vetoed these resolutions, they show that America’s political class is becoming less tolerant of the Saudi regime’s atrocities, especially since the murder of Khashoggi.

The United Arab Emirates is similarly mindful of the reputational costs that a close alliance with Saudi Arabia currently entails, and, with the added objective of easing tensions with Iran, has proceeded to withdraw most of its troops from Yemen. Strikingly, UAE-supported southern separatists in Yemen recently captured the country’s provisional capital from forces loyal to the Saudi-backed government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Although the UAE’s moves are unlikely to presage a radical strategic realignment, the Saudi regime is clearly more isolated and weaker than before.

On top of this, Saudi Arabia recently suffered a critical attack against two refineries belonging to state oil company Saudi Aramco. Although Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the strikes, prominent members of the Trump administration have accused Iran of being directly involved. The attacks affected about half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production (representing 5% of daily world output) and triggered a significant spike in oil prices. This accumulation of setbacks should prompt Saudi Arabia to reconsider its intervention in Yemen – an unqualified foreign policy failure with tragic humanitarian consequences.

But the past 12 months have not all been bad news for Saudi Arabia. Despite the delay in the government’s plans to list Saudi Aramco on stock markets, there have been unequivocal signs that the regime retains the confidence of investors. And in preparation for the long-awaited initial public offering, MBS has installed close partners at the helm of both Aramco and the Ministry of Energy. For the first time, the ministry will be led by a member of the Saudi royal family (MBS’s half-brother).

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Moreover, relations between Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration remain warm. Although the US-Saudi alliance goes back 75 years, not all US presidents have shown the same devotion to it. Barack Obama, for example, supported the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen, but also invested heavily in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Saudi Arabia opposed. Trump, however, has not only tried to scuttle that agreement by withdrawing the US from it, but also has made no attempt whatsoever to contain MBS’s worst foreign-policy impulses.

There is another regional leader who has taken full advantage of Trump’s complicity, at least up to now: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. On the eve of Israel’s recent repeat election, Trump entertained the idea of offering Netanyahu a mutual defense treaty. Netanyahu, meanwhile, doubled down on his promises to annex parts of the West Bank – further proof of his chronic disdain for international law. Yet Trump’s support was somewhat milder this time around, and Netanyahu’s last-minute tactics fell flat: his Likud party won fewer seats than in the previous election five months ago, leaving his political future uncertain.

Although some may regard Netanyahu’s bold declarations merely as campaign braggadocio aimed at diverting attention from the multiple corruption allegations against him, the truth is that expansionism and aggression have been central tenets of his regional policy. Of late, Israel and Iran have clashed repeatedly in Lebanon and Syria, both directly and through Iranian proxy groups. The situation in Lebanon is especially volatile: Israel and Hezbollah have begun to cross red lines, risking another open conflict that could reverberate throughout the region.

Netanyahu already threatened a few years ago to draw the US into a war with Iran. Whereas Obama held firm and insisted on diplomatic efforts that resulted in the nuclear agreement, Trump made the mistake of immediately passing the baton to Netanyahu. And Netanyahu found another ally in former US National Security Adviser John Bolton, whose arrival in the White House precipitated the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

But Bolton recently left the Trump administration after a series of disagreements with the president. After all, Trump does not want to become entangled in too many conflicts abroad before the 2020 presidential election. Indeed, he has contemplated negotiating with the Iranian leadership, and at one point even appeared receptive to French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to alleviate Iran’s financial problems in exchange for the Islamic Republic’s continued adherence to all of its obligations under the nuclear agreement.

If a diplomatic rapprochement with Iran is to have any chance of success, however, Trump must discard the showy, personality-driven approach that he has employed with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Moreover, he must stop pursuing contradictory policies – as he did earlier this year when his administration placed sanctions on Iran’s top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Zarif himself attributes Trump’s periodic policy fits to the influence of a so-called B team: Bin Salman, Binyamin Netanyahu, Bolton, and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Although the first has so far weathered the Khashoggi storm, the second has been significantly weakened and the third sunk, while the fourth has moved toward the sidelines. The important question now is whether this weakening of Trump’s anti-Iran coalition will be sufficient to initiate positive change in a region that desperately needs it.

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