What a contrast between Barack Obama’s last visit to Saudi Arabia, when none of the leading members of the government came to receive him at the airport, and his successor Donald Trump’s triumphal welcome this year. Could anybody have predicted the new President’s honeymoon with the kingdom he so often accused of sponsoring anti-American terrorism during his campaign? In reaction, the influential and Americanophile royal, Al Waleed Bin Talal, the chairman of Kingdom Holdings and uber-investor in US stocks had publicly called on Trump to give up his attempt to take the White House. Other eminent scions of the dynasty, such as former ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, known for his close ties to the Bush family, declared his disdain for Trump, who had been publicly disowned by both former Presidents George Senior and George Junior. 

Yet, apparently all was forgotten when the “leader of the free world” stepped on the tarmac at Riyadh to enjoy the pomp of circumstance of an absolute, super-rich monarchy. The Saudis are experts at choreographing protocol to evince their status. They got Trump to bow his head before their king in the act of receiving the medal of King Abdul Aziz, but not as low as Obama had bent when greeting Abdullah, the previous monarch.

So, what happened? The Saudis had bet heavily on Hillary Clinton’s expected victory at the 2016 election and found themselves in an existential crisis when Trump defeated her. Crown Prince Mohammed, the real ruler of the country, acted fast to mend fences with the new President, who made no secret of his suspicion towards Muslims in general and Wahhabis in particular. He had some mighty weapons in his arsenal: a long-standing relationship with Booz, Allen, Hamilton, Edward Snowden’s ex-employer, a giant consulting company with deep connections in the US intelligence and military industrial complex—it is often described as a virtual CIA front—and Saudi reserves of over a trillion dollars spread in investments all over the world and controlled through a network of foundations, corporations and family-owned holdings, structured on the model of the fabled Rockefeller empire.

With the help of Booz Associates and its parent company, the secretive Carlyle Group, which listed the Bin Laden family among its shareholders on 11 September 2001, Prince Mohammed prepared a Power-Point presentation (without which nothing can happen in US business or politics) and laid it out for Trump and his inner circle. It was conceived as the proverbial win-win deal and targeted at the President’s entrepreneurial spirit. Saudi Arabia would purchase hundreds of billions of American weapons, technological and consumer products, open its doors wider to US corporations and inject huge amounts of capital into priority projects on the American mainland; all the things that Trump had pledged to build in order to restore and modernise the national infrastructure, while generating employment. In that way, the prince was offering a new lease of life to the June 1974 JECOR (US-Saudi Joint Economic Commission) Agreements, negotiated by Henry Kissinger and Treasury Secretary William Simon during the Nixon presidency to set up the petrodollar as the new pillar for the US currency, in place of the recently forsaken gold standard. In exchange for Washington’s protection, the Kingdom invested its oil earnings in US debentures and contracted American companies to build up its economy.

According to Prince Mohammed’s proposal in 2017, Washington would continue to protect the Saudi monarchy and its close allies from internal and external threats, support the Saudi campaign in Yemen and oppose Iran’s rise to regional hegemony.

Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner saw the benefits of this deal. It was well worth making up with the distrusted oil sheikhs. Trump would be able to bring a much needed and promised revival to the economy of the rust-belt states on which his 2020 re-election might depend and by squeezing out as much money as possible from the Gulf states, he hopes to weaken them, making them even more dependent on American goodwill. One condition for the success of this pact is a rise in energy prices sufficient to keep the kingdom solvent, but not high enough to give a major boost to the competing US domestic shale oil and gas production. One aspect of Trump’s plan for economic growth is to drain international capital available for direct investment away from emerging markets into the US. The Saudi proposal was timely and one cannot ignore the potential for private deal making between the Trump-Kushner companies and Gulf interests. If the President himself stays aloof from that, his son-in-law and Trump’s two sons can be relied upon to seize opportunities in earnest. Strangely enough, the American public seems to be reconciled with this visible overlap between national policies and financial pursuits of the first family and mainstream media are more concerned about hypothetical links with Russia than about obvious conflicts of interest and the potential for corruption. We are back to the ages when the great banking families of Renaissance Italy ruled their city states alongwith their far-flung business holdings.

There are however slips between the cup and the lips. Trump felt it when he landed in Israel where the Cabinet members of Premier Netanyahu had mixed feelings about him and his transactions with the Arabs. After soaking in the lavish and ceremonious Saudi ambience, the President may have been a bit ruffled by the rough and cantankerous politicians of the Jewish state, many of whom hold him guilty of anti-Semitism and don’t forgive his backpedalling of the promise to shift the US embassy to Jerusalem. They understand that his agreement with Riyadh put paid to that pledge and realise that he may not overthrow Assad’s government in Syria and crush the Hezbollah in Lebanon as they would wish him to. The Zionist establishment is expected to probe and monitor the White House’s relations with Muslim states, which presently feel compelled to show tolerance for Israel, but may reassert their long-standing hostility when circumstances will demand. The American attempt to harness the anti-Iranian Sunni front to settle the Palestinian issue and forge a pan-Arab entente with Tel Aviv could backfire, unless Trump is willing to actually act against Iran, and that would be entail enormous costs to all concerned. Saudi Arabia is fragile, globally unloved, worn by the toll of the unwinnable conflicts in Yemen and Syria, torn by rifts within the ruling family and dissent in the Salafist clergy. Iran has moles and assets in the Kingdom’s Shia majority northern provinces and can activate them to produce serious unrest. Tehran has tacit agreements with Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which might part ways with Riyadh in case of serious trouble. The Houthi Yemeni fighters stage incursions and periodically launch ballistic missiles into Saudi territory; one reportedly almost hit the national capital just before Trump’s arrival. The gigantic arms purchases signed on by the royal government will not protect it from internal turmoil and many of those weapons could fall into the hands of dissidents or rebels, given the untested fighting ability and loyalty of the regime’s forces. On the other side, Trump’s administration is bedevilled by allegations and investigations unleashed by Democratic and Republican rivals and foes and it is split between Steve Bannon’s Alt Right faction and the globalist liberal interests represented by Jared Kushner. The latter has become a target for many of Trump’s protectionist and conservative supporters, and Breitbart, their favourite mouthpiece, has drawn attention to the business dealings of the Kushner family in China. Will the President manage to navigate between these two opposite clans whose support he needs?

All in all, however, Trump’s first West Asia voyage has shown once again his ability to change his tune, adapt to circumstances, seize opportunities and keep friends and enemies guessing. Neither he nor his Saudi hosts really believed much that the other side was saying, but they were brought together by their mutual requirement for survival. There is little doubt that the Arabs, like the Chinese and Russians, find Trump’s instinctive pragmatism preferable to Barack Obama’s legalistic approach and moralistic obfuscations. Those countries have traditionally liked to talk business with GOP politicians, rather than listen to the Democrats’ self-righteous perorations on human rights, which they know to be usually self-serving.

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