Keeping Bin Salman in Place Will Hurt Trump’s Middle East Policies
Against the advise from his intelligence services U.S. President Trump decided to leave the effective Saudi ruler, clown prince Mohammad bin Salman, in place. That move is unlikely to help with his larger policy plans.
Bruce Riedel, a (former) high level CIA analyst, long warned of betting on Mohammad bin Salman. Even before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Riedel wrote that Saudi Arabia is at its least stable in 50 years (also here):
The stability of Saudi Arabia is becoming more fragile as the young crown prince’s judgment and competence are increasingly in doubt. Mohammed bin Salman has a track record of impulsive and reckless decisions at home and abroad that calls into question the kingdom’s future.
Riedel warned that the Trump administration, by betting on Mohammad bin Salman, put everything on one dubious card. MbS is unstable and made himself many internal enemies. If King Salman suddenly dies there will probably be a leadership crisis. Saudi Arabia could end up in chaos. U.S. Middle East policy, largely build around MbS, would then fall apart.
The CIA disliked MbS since he replaced Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince. MbN is a longtime U.S. asset with a proven record of cooperation. MbS came from nowhere and the CIA has no control over him. That he is indeed impulsive and reckless only adds to that. That the CIA feared that MbS meant trouble even before the Khashoggi disaster, explains why it sabotaged Trump’s attempts to exculpate MbS over the murder of Khashoggi.
While Riedel was writing about the Saudi danger, Jamal Khashoggi, a longtime Saudi intelligence agent who had aligned himself with the wrong prince, went to Istanbul to build the public relation infrastructure for regime change in Saudi Arabia:
Jamal Khashoggi, a prolific writer and commentator, was working quietly with intellectuals, reformists and Islamists to launch a group called Democracy for the Arab World Now. He wanted to set up a media watch organization to keep track of press freedom.
He also planned to launch an economic-focused website to translate international reports into Arabic to bring sobering realities to a population often hungry for real news, not propaganda.
Part of Khashoggi’s approach was to include political Islamists in what he saw as democracy building.
Khashoggi had incorporated his democracy advocacy group, DAWN, in January in Delaware, said Khaled Saffuri, another friend. .. The project was expected to reach out to journalists and lobby for change, representing both Islamists and liberals, …
Khashoggi’s projects were allegedly financed by Qatar but probably also had CIA support.
MbS got wind thereof. He told his private office chief Bader Al Asaker to send his bodyguards to kill Khashoggi. They did so on October 2 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But it was a much too large and too complicate mission. They Saudi agents made too many mistakes. They also underestimated the Turkish intelligence service.
The Turks had bugged the Saudi consulate and have records of all phone calls. When they learned from Khashoggi’s fiancee, a well connected daughter of a co-founder of Erdogan’s AK Party, that Khashoggi was missing, they wound back the tapes and unraveled the story. The killers had made four phone calls to Al Asaker to report back. In one of the calls the mission leader told him: “Tell your boss” that “the deed was done.” The Turkish president Erdogan was delighted to receive such a gift. It allowed him to cut his strategic competitor down to size.
The Saudis were too slow to recognize the danger. They came up with all sorts of unbelievable claims over what happened in their consulate. Trump sent Secretary of State Pompeo who told them to find a sufficiently high ranking scapegoat:
The plan includes an option to pin the Saudi journalist’s murder on an innocent member of the ruling al-Saud family in order to insulate those at the very top, the source told MEE.
The Salman clan did not follow that advice. The Saudi prosecutor accused and indicted only minor staff.
Trump fumbled the issue. He clearly did not want to accuse the crown prince. But the CIA preempted him. It went public and accused MbS of having given the order himself.
Despite the CIA assessment Trump continues to defend the relations with Saudi Arabia. In a quite weird statement, dictated by Trump himself, the White House did not exculpate Mohammad bin Salman of the murder, but essentially said “we don’t give a fuck!”
The statement on Standing with Saudi Arabia begins with this:America First!
The world is a very dangerous place!
The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”
The Trump statement further makes these points:
- The Saudis promise a lot of money to us!
- Some Saudis murdered Khashoggi.
- They say the dude was a bad guy!
- MbS may have ordered it. Or maybe not.
- Good U.S. relations with the Saudis is in the interest of Israel!
- The Saudis kept pumping oil when I asked them.
- America First!
The statement does not mention the Saudi King, it only speaks of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is certainly not a whitewash for MbS. Trump shows support for the country of Saudi Arabia, but not for its royal leaders. That is why they will probably hate it.
Trump will get much criticism from the foreign policy borg for burying the case like this. But that criticism is over style, not over substance. U.S. support for bloody dictators is the rule, not the exception.
But that still leaves the concern that Trump bet his whole Middle East policy on his relations with the Saudis. And even as parts of it already fail, he continues to do so.
Trump’s priorities in the Middle East are: the ‘deal of the century’ for Israel, the forging of a united Arab front against Iran, weapon sales, cheap oil and minor issue like financing the U.S. occupation of Syria and ending the unsavory war on Yemen. None of these issues has seen any success.
– Through his son-in-law Jared Kushner Trump wants to arrange the ultimate deal for Israel which consists of disfranchising the Palestinians of any national rights while the Saudis pay them off. That plan failed when Trump, with verbal agreement from MbS, moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. King Salman intervened and stopped any further cooperation on the issue. It is doubtful that there will be any more Saudi support for the ‘peace plan’ at least as long as he lives.
– The Trump administration urged the Saudis to make nice with Qatar to then found a “Arab NATO” under U.S. command. The Saudis rejected that. Qatar supports political Islam in form of the Muslim Brotherhood which the Gulf potentates see as the biggest danger to their rule.
– Trump hoped that the Saudis would buy lots of U.S. weapons. He brags about a $110 billion deal he claims to have made. But final sales this year were only made for $14.5 billion. The Saudis acquired not one big ticket item from the U.S. since MbS rose to his position. This concerns not only the CIA but also the Pentagon and the weapon industry:
Saudi sources said U.S. officials had cooled on MbS not only because of his suspected role in the murder of Khashoggi. They are also rankled because the crown prince recently urged the Saudi defense ministry to explore alternative weapons supplies from Russia, the sources said.
In a letter dated May 15, seen by Reuters, the crown prince requested that the defense ministry “focus on purchasing weapon systems and equipment in the most pressing fields” and get training on them, including the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
– The Saudis increased oil production to keep the markets stable while the U.S. sanctions Iran. But Trump gave waivers to buyers of Iranian oil and the oil price fell from $80 per barrel down to $60/b. The Saudis are furious over this. They need at least $80/b to balance their budget. They will now cut their production:
“The Saudis are very angry at Trump. They don’t trust him any more and feel very strongly about a cut. They had no heads-up about the waivers,” said one senior source briefed on Saudi energy policies.
The Saudis will cut oil production and Trump will have to renew the waivers to buyers of Iranian oil or risk a very high oil price that would hurt the U.S. economy.
– Despite U.S. pressure the war on Yemen still goes on. Yesterday the fighting around Hodeidah port resumed after a few days of lull. Trump will come under more pressure from Congress to finally end the war.
– When asked for a quarter billion for the U.S. occupation of northeast Syria the Saudis coughed up a paltry $100 million.
There is really nothing in Trump’s list on which the Saudis consistently followed through. His alliance with MbS has brought him no gain and a lot of trouble.
Trumps main Middle East project is to regime-change Iran in support of Israel. His main campaign sponsor, Sheldon Adelson, demands that. Without a stronger Saudi Arabia and its full support the project is likely to fail.
Why then is he still promoting relations with Saudi Arabia?
Professor Asad Abukhalil, says that Trump’s believes that standing with the Saudis gives him leverage:
I feel that Donald Trump wants what is best for his administration. He has somebody, he has Mohammed bin Salman, as he best can have him. He is holding him by the neck. And if he survives, he — Mohammed bin Salman — will be greatly indebted to Trump, and to Netanyahu, because those two stood by him and kept him afloat. And because of that situation, Mohammad bin Salman will be obligated to make so many concessions — political, military, and financial — to the United States, and even to Israel. Some of it would be more direct now. Perhaps he would even visit the Israeli occupation state.
But why would MbS, once absolved, do such? Why should he feel pressured? What actually need would he have to feel “obligated”?
If that is Trump’s calculation it is likely wrong. MbS has shown no sign that he will ever follow Trump’s orders. MbS is a ruthless man. He will never become the docile poodle Trump needs him to be. That is also the assessment of the U.S. intelligence services.
As Abukhalil continues:
On the other hand, the intelligence agencies, I think, my reading, is that they do not think that Mohamed bin Salman is capable of steering the regime in a direction that is more in the interest of the stability of the regime. As a result they would rather make a change in order to save the regime. They worry that bin Salman is too reckless, and his thinking is ruled too precarious, which endangered American interests in that region.
Gina Haspel, the CIA’s director and torture queen, will take her assessment to Congress. There are many furious voices there, who want MbS to go. The Zionist lobby will not be able to buy off each and every one of them.
Regarding Sen. Lindsay Graham and his constant rants against MbS. @Intel_Online explains that “he is Lockheed Martin’s man in the Senate” and that the weapon supplier faces huge opposition from the “Salman clan” due to disagreement about technology transfer. The paper goes on in explaining that the Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), launched by the PIF, is the state-owned military industrial company that has been refusing the US trade proposals for the past 2 years, because KSA wants technology transfer but the US refuses.
The pressure on Saudi Arabia, and on Trump, will not recede. The CIA will insist to act on its assessment. The military industrial complex will demand real weapon sales. The media onslaught will also continue. The Washington Post, for which Khashoggi wrote, reports today of torture against women activists in Saudi prisons.
The conversations among the murderers, their conversations with Riyadh after committing the murder, dialogues that will prove the crown prince was the one who directly gave the order, perhaps the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egyptian intelligence’s role in the incident, and as a matter of fact, information on Israeli intelligence’s “expertise” or on the U.S. leg of the murder may be revealed.
MbS announced that he will take part in the G20 summit in Argentina at the end of November. That is a big mistake. Turkey is a also a G20 member. Erdogan might want to use the occasion to play selected parts of the tapes to the attending heads of state, and to the world media. Everyone in attendance would have to distance themselves from MbS. It would be another public relation disaster for Saudi Arabia.
Trump is making a mistake by keeping Mohammad bin Salman in place. He will never get the support from him that he needs for his larger plans.
The U.S. surely has enough leverage to push him aside. If Trump does not do it, others will likely give it a try. The outcome is uncertain. The consequences may well be severe.
Source: Moon of Alabama