On his first overseas trip as president, Donald Trump traveled not to Canada, or to Mexico, or to Britain, or to France, but to Saudi Arabia, where he was, to his obvious delight, greeted like a king. According to a New York Times report from Riyadh, “The Saudis treated him like royalty, with red carpets, lavish meals and American flags flying everywhere.” During his two-day visit to the Wahhabi Kingdom, Trump was awarded a gold medal, danced along with Saudi swordsmen, and made time to sign a series of agreements with Saudi King Salman, which included a new arms deal totaling $460 billion over 10 years.
What a long way Trump has come since last year’s campaign, when, during the final presidential debate, he declared that “our country cannot afford to defend Saudi Arabia…and many other places.” During that debate, Trump also criticized the Clinton Foundation (“a criminal enterprise”) for accepting $25 million in Saudi money, because “these are people that push gays…off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly and yet you take their money.”
But once in office, Trump’s criticisms were quickly muted. By February, CIA director Mike Pompeo had traveled to Riyadh to bestow the George Tenet Award upon the kingdom’s interior minister, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. And soon enough, reports were emerging of a Pentagon plan that would increase US support for the Saudis’ grotesque war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
So what explains the turnaround? The ease with which Trump abandons previously held positions is by now well known. But another factor that explains the turnaround is the power and skill of the Saudi lobby in reinforcing the already deeply entrenched view that US national interests are best served by an alliance with Riyadh in order to check Iranian influence in the region.
Obsession With Iran
From its earliest days, the Trump administration wasted little time in signaling that it would soon be turning President Obama’s Middle East policy, which could be characterized by a wariness of the Saudis and a willingness to negotiate with the Iranians, on its head.
Before his confirmation as defense secretary, retired general James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran “has proven to be the primary source of turmoil in the Middle East.” Mattis said, “Iranian malign influence in the region is growing. Iran is the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its policies are contrary to our interest.”
Focusing on Iran to the exclusion of all else also has the benefit of appeasing the Israelis, while the blossoming friendship between Israel and Saudi Arabia also serves to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s hand in Washington. A revealing exchange between Lesley Stahl and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu on 60 Minutes in December sums up the new state of play in the Middle East:
Stahl: I have to ask you, because it’s the most fascinating of all: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Are you actually developing an anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East?
Netanyahu: Doesn’t have to be developed. It’s there anyway.
In the interview with Stahl, Netanyahu also observed that the “only good thing” about the Iranian nuclear accord was that it had brought Israel and the Arab autocracies of the region “closer together.”
“Israel’s position in the Arab world,” said Netanyahu, “has changed because they no longer see Israel as their enemy, but as their ally, in their indispensable battle against the forces of militant Islam, either those led by Iran, the Shiites, or—and those led by Daesh—by ISIS, the militant Sunnis.” [Emphasis added.]
The focus on Iran also helps to divert the American public’s attention away from the depraved nature of the House of Saud. Over the past several years, it has become clear that the values of the kingdom (to say nothing of the methods it chooses to enforce those values) are far closer to those of ISIS than to those of the United States.
According to Human Rights Watch, the kingdom beheaded 19 people—one of whom was executed for the crime of “black magic sorcery”—over the course of 16 days in August 2014. Other crimes punishable by death in Saudi Arabia include adultery, atheism, and apostasy. According to news reports, in 2015 Saudi Arabia executed nearly 160 people and in the process beheaded more than twice the number of people that ISIS had that year.
And then there is the small matter of Saudi support for 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. In a highly controversial piece for The London Review of Books, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that Saudi Arabia funded bin Laden’s stay in Abbottabad, Pakistan. According to a retired senior US intelligence official who spoke to Hersh, “The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida.”
Still worse, by their own account, the Saudis helped to facilitate the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As recounted by the Financial Times, in 2014, “the late Prince Saud al-Faisal, the respected Saudi foreign minister, remonstrated with John Kerry, US secretary of state, that ‘Daesh [Isis] is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa’—the Tehran-aligned Shia Islamist ruling party of Iraq.”
Given all of this, it is hard not to conclude that American Middle East policy rests upon a deep, willful misreading of the geopolitics of the region, which sees the Saudis and their Gulf allies as US-friendly bulwarks against a revanchist Iran. In fact, according to the respected Middle East expert and former State Department official Vali Nasr, the opposite is true.
According to Nasr, for Iran “this is a period of great deal of danger and risk for them regionally with very few cards to play in the Arab world.” Vasr believes that “the rhetoric of saying Iran is behind all the mischief and…its hegemony is unchecked is sort of one of those, I think shibboleths that we’re very good at repeating and repeating until it becomes sort of self evident truth to us. But I don’t think the facts actually support it.”
The casting of Iran as the region’s primary villain is all the more remarkable in light of last Friday’s Iranian presidential election. As National Iranian American Council president Trita Parsi observed, the overwhelming majority of Iranians participated (turnout was 75 percent) and they backed “a nonviolent path to bring about progress” by reelecting the moderate Hassan Rouhani in a landslide victory. As Parsi notes, “In a regional context, this election is even more remarkable. In most of the Middle East, elections are not even held. Take Saudi Arabia for instance…”
What else might explain America’s responsiveness to the whims and wishes of the Wahhabi Kingdom? Access to oil markets, certainly. But so does the Saudi government’s robust lobbying efforts in Washington. According to the most recent FARA (Foreign Agent Registration Act) filings at the Justice Department, over the past year Saudi Arabia acquired the services of powerful DC lobbying firms such as the Podesta Group, Squire Patton Boggs, the Glover Park Group, Burson-Marsteller, and Hogan Lovells in clear anticipation of the coming post-Obama era.
In a September 2016 letter to the Saudi Royal Court’s Center for Studies and Media Affairs, Edward Newberry, a global managing partner at Squire Patton Boggs, wrote that, for $100,000 a month “plus expenses,” “I will lead the day-to-day efforts on behalf of our team which will include former Majority Leader Trent Lott, former Senator John Breaux, Jack Deschauer [a former Pentagon offical] and other professionals as needed from time-to-time.”
The Saudis also obtained the services of Burson-Marsteller in December 2016 to promote what can only euphemistically be called “Global Counter Terrorism Week” in Riyadh. The Manhattan-based PR firm was tasked with, among other duties, “content development, media monitoring, media relations, event support (including inviting speakers and participants) and managing a press office.”
In recent months Saudi Arabia has also hired Hogan Lovells and the firm of lobbyist Richard Hohlt, both of which agreed to lobby “US Government officials, Members of Congress and their staffs” on issues ranging from “Middle East regional security” to “counter-terrorism.” For its work, Hogan Lovells will receive $375,000 on a quarterly basis. But like a number of recent filings reviewed by The Nation, the amount Hohlt is to receive from the kingdom was not disclosed. A pro forma declaration stating that the “Duration, fees, and expenses have not been determined as of time of submission” mark a number of recent FARA filings relating to the Saudis.
The dissemination of Saudi propaganda around Washington is a key aspect of the job. Opensecrets.org obtained e-mails sent by Hogan lobbyist Ari Friedman, who promoted a February 2017 issue of Saudi Arabia In Focus, a newsletter produced by the Saudi information office in Washington. In it, readers are informed that Saudi Arabia is a “Pillar of Stability” in the region and that, for the Saudis, “Safeguarding Civilians in Yemen Remains a Priority.” A January 2017 e-mail to dozens of congressional staffers by the Podesta Group’s David Adams stressed King Salman’s “commitment to fighting terrorism.” It is worth noting in this context that Adams had previously served as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs under Hillary Clinton.
Yet not all pro-Saudi propaganda is bought and paid for; some spread it because they actually seem to believe it. Take neoconservative columnist Bret Stephens, for example. In a column for The Wall Street Journal in January 2016, Stephens wrote that because the Saudis feel “acutely threatened by a resurgent Iran,” the right US policy would be “to hold them close and demonstrate serious support, lest they be tempted to continue freelancing their foreign policy in ways we might not like.” Appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe in September 2016, Stephens admonished Kentucky Senator Rand Paul for expressing reservations about our friends in Riyadh. “We should be extremely grateful to have Saudi Arabia as an ally,” admonished Stephens.
Stephens’s thinking, such as it is, is typical of what passes for strategic analysis within the media/think-tank echo chamber, where Saudi Arabia is relentlessly painted in the best possible light.
The nexus of Saudi money, bought and un-bought influence, and the resulting barrage of pro-Saudi propaganda combines to obscure the simple but ramifying point that the Saudis are not our friends. Yet the prevailing climate of opinion in Washington, shaped by these forces, maintains that Saudi Arabia (the funders of Al Qaeda, facilitators of ISIS, perpetrators of war and famine in Yemen) is, as they themselves claim, a “pillar of stability” in the Middle East.
There are many troubling aspects of Donald Trump’s still-young presidency, but his warm embrace of Riyadh this weekend might be the most troubling of all.