At this point, it’s no great surprise when Donald Trump walks away from past statements in service to some impulse of the moment. Nowhere, however, has such a shift been more extreme or its potential consequences more dangerous than in his sudden love affair with the Saudi royal family. It could in the end destabilize the Middle East in ways not seen in our lifetimes (which, given the growing chaos in the region, is no small thing to say).
Trump’s newfound ardor for the Saudi regime is a far cry from his past positions, including his campaign season assertion that the Saudis were behind the 9/11 attacks and complaints, as recently as this April, that the United States was losing a “tremendous amount of money” defending the kingdom. That was yet another example of the sort of bad deal that President Trump was going to set right as part of his “America First” foreign policy.
Given this background, it came as a surprise to pundits, politicians, and foreign-policy experts alike when the president chose Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, as the very first stop on his very first overseas trip. This was clearly meant to underscore the importance his administration was suddenly placing on the need to bolster the long-standing US-Saudi alliance.
Mindful of Trump’s vanity, the Saudi government rolled out the red carpet for our narcissist in chief, lining the streets for miles with alternating US and Saudi flags, huge images of which were projected onto the Ritz Carlton hotel where Trump was staying. (Before his arrival, in a sign of the psychological astuteness of his Saudi hosts, the hotel projected a five-story-high image of Trump himself onto its façade, pairing it with a similarly huge and flattering photo of the country’s ruler, King Salman.) His hosts also put up billboards with pictures of Trump and Salman over the slogan “together we prevail.” What exactly the two countries were to prevail against was left open to interpretation. It is, however, unlikely that the Saudis were thinking about Trump’s much-denounced enemy, ISIS—given that Saudi planes, deep into a war in neighboring Yemen, have rarely joined Washington’s air war against that outfit. More likely, what they had in mind was their country’s bitter regional rival Iran.