June Issue 2017
Recently inaugurated presidents of the United States, on their initial forays abroad, often choose to pay respects to their neighbours, heading to Ottawa or Mexico City. Donald Trump was determined to make a more grandiose impression and focused his itinerary on the headquarters of the three Abrahamic religions.First stop: Riyadh, where a gilded welcome awaited him.
The Saudis were naturally thrilled by the honour of being Trump’s first destination, and added bells and whistles to the usual red carpet, which in turn delighted the visitor. After their experience with Barack Obama, whom they detested as much as the Israeli hierarchy did, the Saudis are inevitably over the moon at having in the White House someone they can easily do business with.
As in the case of Israel, Obama never had a serious problem with supplying weapons to the Saudis and the UAE, despite the havoc they have been wreaking in Yemen. He felt obliged, though, to make discreet noises about human rights. And, worst of all from the Saudi-Israeli point of view, he successfully pursued a deal with Iran whereby the latter is constrained, at least for the time being, from developing nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia and Israel evidently hated the idea of Iran going nuclear, but they appear to hate even more the agreement that prevents it from doing so. Trump, as a presidential candidate, took up cudgels against what he described as the worst deal ever, and suggested he would not abide by it. That’s easier said than done, given that the US is not the only party to it – and, furthermore, the closely-monitored Iranians are not guilty of any violations.
None of that, let alone the fact that Iranians had just re-elected their broadly reformist-minded president, Hassan Rouhani, by a landslide, deterred Trump from aligning himself unequivocally with Saudi Arabia’s blatantly sectarian anti-Tehran agenda. Iranian democracy is, no doubt, defective – although the same could be said, in different ways, about the political system in more or less every country that claims to abide by democratic norms, not least the US itself, where leading candidates are effectively vetted by the ayatollahs of Wall Street.
In his campaign rhetoric, Rouhani sounded considerably more progressive than Trump. Reportedly, both the ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guard backed his chief rival, Ebrahim Raisi, who – as Rouhani wasn’t afraid to point out – was associated with many of the worst excesses of the Iranian Revolution, and whose ambitions to eventually replace Ali Khamenei as supreme leader have been dealt a decisive blow.
Of course, Trump and his Saudi hosts – not to mention Israel – would have been much more pleased had Raisi won, because that would have more readily reaffirmed their prejudices. The fact that their attitudes effectively add up to mak-ing common cause with the most reactionary elements in Iran, who staunchly oppose the nuclear deal, does not bother the Saudi hierarchy. And the fact that Iranian democracy, despite all its flaws, is far superior to the political systems that operate in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, not to mention ostensibly democratic Egypt, clearly did not bother Trump – although, to be fair, he may not actually be aware of it. After all, the level of ig-norance he has brought into the White House is probably unprecedented. And it required considerable gall for Trump and his secretary of state, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, to denounce Iran and its backing for terrorism from the Saudi vantage point.
After all, the vast majority of the hijackers who perpetrated the extraordinary violence of 9/11 were Saudi nationals – whereafter the regime of George W. Bush facilitated the rapid departure of Saudi royals and bin Laden family members from American soil. Osama bin Laden himself was one of Saudi Arabia’s gifts to the US-backed Afghan jihad. Saudi largesse has spawned an indeterminate number of mosques and madrassas around the world that all too often are associated with the perpetrators of Salafist violence. It was largely Saudi-sponsored madrassas in Pakistan that spawned the wretched Taliban. Furthermore, some of the worst elements in the jihad against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime have enjoyed Saudi/Gulf backing.
None of this mattered, naturally, when Trump and King Salman inaugurated Saudi Arabia’s “global” centre against terrorism, the latest instance of the Saudis pretending they have nothing to do with the phenomenon.The most bizarre image from the ceremony showed Trump, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the custodian of the holy shrines, and the (“elected”) Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el Sisi simultaneously laying their hands on a glowing orb. It turned out to be an illuminated globe, yet the impression of evil being afoot was not lost on the global audience.
This was something of a sideshow, though. The main event in Riyadh was the awkwardly titled Arab Islamic American Summit, for which the Saudi regime had summoned several dozen minions from across the Muslim world, including Nawaz Sharif, to make up the audience for the US president’s address, in which he declared: “Yesterday, we signed historic agreements with the Kingdom that will invest almost $400 The most bizarre image from the summit showed Trump, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, and Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el Sisi simultaneously laying their hands on a glowing orb. it turned out to be an illuminated globe, yet the impression of evil being afoot was not lost on the global audience.
This was something of a sideshow, though. The main event in Riyadh was the awkwardly titled Arab Islamic American Summit, for which the Saudi regime had summoned several dozen minions from across the Muslim world, including Nawaz Sharif, to make up the audience for the US president’s ad-dress, in which he declared: “Yesterday we signed historic agreements with the Kingdom that will invest almost $400 billion in our two countries and create many thousands of jobs in America and Saudi Arabia.
This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defence purchase – and we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defence companies.”After going on for a bit about terror-ism and declaring his support for the Saudi-led warfare in Yemen, he added: “King Salman, I thank you for the creation of this great moment in history, and for your massive investment in America, its industry and its jobs.” The speech, remarkable mainly for its gaffe-free delivery, was reportedly written by Stephen Miller, a dedicated young Islamophobe on the presidential staff.
Strangely enough, there was no mention of “extremist Islamic terrorism,” the phrase Trump had in the past frequently derided Obama and Hillary Clinton for refusing to spell out. What’s more, although he had tweeted back in the day that Michelle Obama was disrespecting her hosts when she visited Saudi Arabia with her husband and decided to go without headgear, neither the president’s wife nor his daughter made any attempt to cover their hair during their sojourn in the kingdom.Which is fine, of course – head coverings should never be obligatory for anyone, including Saudi women. Yet Melania and Ivanka both opted for veils in the presence of Pope Francis when the circus reached Rome. And while Francis tried his best to play the gracious host, there were visible signs of distress on his visage as he went through the ordeal. Hypocrisy, however, is the least of the Trump family’s problems.
By and large, the stance the president maintained through his journey, from Riyadh to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, then onwards to Rome, Brussels and Sicily, does not fundamentally differ from the foreign policy of his predecessors, except in the sense that some of the nuances are lost and the figure-head is unbelievably crass. But Trump’s general ignorance and an apparently dogged determination to keep things that way are unprecedented. His approach to domestic troubles, thus far related largely to his campaign’s Russian links, has led to sections of the American media dubbing him Nixonian. But Richard Nixon, no doubt deeply flawed in many respects, was neither ignorant nor an idiot.
It is unlikely he would have endorsed the concept of a blatantly sectarian “Muslim Nato,” as Trump effectively did during his Saudi visit. For what its worth, Riyadh set up this military alliance without consulting most of its purported members, a large number of whom are practically irrelevant in terms of what they can contribute. Nations such as Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, on the other hand, are capable of packing quite a punch – but may well be unwilling, for a variety of reasons, to direct it against Iran, the main target in the Saudi-Gulf quest for hegemony. (In that particular context, Israel would prove to be a much more dependable ally.)
Pakistan’s former army chief, Raheel Sharif, reportedly accepted the offer to head the military component of this confessional alliance on the condition that Iran, too, be invited to join it. There was never a hope in hell of that transpiring. If Sharif’s intentions were not misreported, he must have been persuaded to change his mind.
Such intricacies were obviously lost Trump as he bravely attempted to perform a Saudi sword dance alongside King Salman. His commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was meanwhile delighted to note that “there was not a single hint of a protester anywhere during the whole time we were there – not one guy with a placard.” That just goes to show how much he knows about one of the most repressive societies on earth. The non-brainwashed segments of its population are understandably not keen to lose their heads. Inevitably, protesters in Israel and Europe made up for the predictable Saudi silence.
Trump was clearly comfortable with the gilded luxury his hosts arranged for, and ecstatic about the arms deal – $110 billion right away, and much more in the years ahead – as well as other economic agreements, including a Saudi offer to fund American infrastructure (one might call it foreign aid). The Saudis are notorious for not living up to their financial commitments, but again that’s a detail Trump cannot be bothered with as long as he has impressive figures to boast about to his domestic audience, promising “JOBS, JOBS, JOBS.” He’s fondly known among some Gulf Arabs as Abu Ivanka, but perhaps Sheikh Chilli would be a more appropriate nickname.
If Trump’s future hangs in the balance, so does that of Saudi Arabia, which is trying to manage a transition to more straitened circumstances, given dwindling oil revenues. Of course, there’s always enough in its coffers to pay for the latest lethal weaponry. The military hardware isn’t just meant for terrorising its neighbours, though. It may in time come in handy to curb the domestic unrest that becomes steadily more likely as the family-run monarchy wriggles out of the compact whereby generous welfare provisions kept most of its citizens from making trouble. In the event of an uprising, it will be interesting indeed to see what kind of role the “Muslim Nato” will be expected to play in subduing the disaffected.
In all likelihood, Trump will no longer be around to mourn its demise when the House of Saud crumbles, as eventually it must, necessitating a change in nomenclature – given it is the only country named after its ruling family, something that the US president must envy – and leading, hopefully, to an Arab democracy rather than another fundamentalist entity.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.