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Why Saudi and the UAE shouldn’t bet on Trump

Saudi strategy should not be to dominate the Sunni world and cast Palestinians aside, but to build an alliance of Sunni states as a balance to Iran

These are trying times for Mohammed bin Zayed, the Darth Vader of the Middle East who plans to establish a Galactic Empire of “moderate Islamic” states. Liberal in name, police states in practice, all would end up paying tribute to the Death Star, Abu Dhabi.

Emirati military trainers have just been kicked out of Somalia, after $9.6m of cash was seized on a UAE plane. The crown prince’s plans to establish a string of ports along the Indian Ocean, including Berbera in breakaway Somaliland, have taken a hit as a result.

His plans for Libya are not faring any better either. The self-appointed field marshal, Khalifa Haftar, limped back home after a prolonged absence in a Paris hospital. He is reported to have lung cancer that has metastasised to the brain, and avoided, when he could, having to stand. 

In the line of fire

Haftar’s enemies, in contrast, are in rude health. The leaders of the two warring city states, Misrata and Zintan, have reconciled. (The Zintanis represented Haftar’s best chance of establishing a military presence in western Libya.) And one of Haftar’s most prominent opponents, leading Muslim Brotherhood member Khalid al-Mishri, has just been voted head of the High Council of State.

The war in Yemen grinds on. The Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Khaled bin Salman, a former fighter pilot, claimed in a tweet that his elder brother, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had ordered the attack that killed Salah al-Sammad, the head of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council. 

But it may not be wise to crow about this killing. Both the Houthis and pro-Iran Shia groups in Iraq have promised to avenge the death of their leader by killing members of the Saudi royal family. Bin Salman, who is also defence minister and launched the “quick” war in Yemen, is first in the line of fire. Perhaps this is why he now travels with three rings of bodyguards.

When you buy into Trump, you also become a stakeholder in the battles he engages in. Before long you acquire his enemies, too

More broadly, the Saudi-Emirati intervention has long since squandered the support of those Yemenis who invited them in and should have remained their natural allies.

The exiled president of Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, has himself become a de facto inmate of Riyadh’s prison palaces. He was forced to sign a paper agreeing to the “formation of a tripartite committee” with Saudi and the UAE “to participate in the management of the situation of his country”. Reports like these seem to confirm the Yemeni view that a war of liberation has morphed into a war of occupation.

Hadi had just lost a power battle with the Emirati-controlled militias over the control of Aden airport. Further humiliation followed when Hadi and an office manager, Abdullah al-Alimi, were transferred to a room with a sofa bed, two armchairs and no blankets for 24 hours, after meeting the king at his residence.

Expensive miscalculation

Curiously, bin Zayed’s biggest disappointment and his most expensive miscalculation may turn out to be none of the above: Somalia, Libya or Yemen. He could yet lose on the most substantial bet he has placed: on US President Donald Trump himself.

Bin Zayed spotted Trump early on in the US presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton was still the outright favourite.

Clinton was too long in the tooth as a foreign policy hand as far as the Emiratis were concerned. They needed an aggressive novice, a truly blank page on which anyone fast and rich enough could scribble the script. The Qataris had shunned Trump’s advances. Here was an opportunity the Emiratis could not miss.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on 20 March 2018 (AFP)

Bin Zayed alighted upon another novice - a young prince, bin Salman, who was then at two removes from the Saudi throne - in late 2015 and took him on a camping trip in the desert with falcons, the equivalent of a round of golf. The pair was on the yacht with George Nader, the Lebanese-American back channel used by successive US administrations, in which moves were made to re-align the region. 

Bin Zayed instructed bin Salman on what he had to do to become king. The Machiavellian mentor knew how to nurture the ambitions of a power-hungry prince. Bin Zayed introduced bin Salman to Israel, and then to Trump’s family. Bin Zayed promoted bin Salman in Washington, using his able and hyperactive ambassador, Youssef Otaiba. This was when his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, was still the toast of the US intelligence establishment. Otaiba then successfully set about destroying bin Nayef’s reputation. 

Visit delayed

The pair of crown princes spent literally a fortune buying Trump’s favours - up to $500bn in defence contracts from Saudi alone over the next decade.

All of this patient groundwork was to culminate in a series of royal visits to Washington, of which bin Zayed positioned himself to be the last. It was scheduled to come at the end of April, but I am informed that it has been postponed. 

Far from being the stage upon which bin Zayed and bin Salman can strut, the US is not providing firm terrain on which to manoeuvre. True enough, the mass media is gullible and easy to hoodwink. Washington’s think-tanks are also venal and eminently buyable. 

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But when you buy into Trump, you also become a stakeholder in the battles he engages in. Before long you acquire his enemies, too. 

I understand that bin Zayed is asking for a written undertaking that neither he nor his entourage will be stopped for questioning by special counsel Robert Mueller about his inquiry into illegal funding of Trump’s election campaign.

Mueller has inside information on bin Zayed’s past dealings from Nader, one of bin Zayed’s former advisers. Bin Zayed wants to avoid the further forensic dissections in the New York Times that this could produce. 

Joker in the pack

Then there is the joker in the pack: Trump himself. Bin Zayed does not want to repeat the fiasco where bin Salman was humiliated by the former reality TV host pulling out a series of large, coloured cards showing how much the kingdom was spending on US arms. Bin Salman visibly winced when the cards were produced, and well he might. 

Nor does he want Trump to repeat the lines he spoke recently to French President Emmanuel Macron, that US allies in the Middle East would crumble “within a week” if the US was not there to protect them.

“They wouldn’t be there except for the United States. They would not last a week. We are protecting them. They have to now step up and pay for what is happening,” Trump bragged.

Emirati distress was such that licensed commentators were instructed to hold forth. One of them was Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, who tweeted that the Arab Gulf States had been around well before the US was founded and would be around years after the US leaves.

Assuaging US Jewish audience

Neither has Trump played ball on Qatar, from the Saudi and Emirati perspective.

No sooner had the two crown princes congratulated themselves on dispatching Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to an early retirement, than they were told by his successor, Mike Pompeo, the same thing: Enough is enough. End the blockade. 

This is not what Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had expected to hear. They wanted to build a moat on the border of the Qatari peninsula and fill it with nuclear waste. 

From the start, bin Zayed and bin Salman set out to do everything they could, bar physically prostrating themselves, to please Trump and assuage a US Jewish audience. Bin Salman went as far as telling US Jewish leaders, according to reports by Israel’s Channel 10 news, that Palestinians should accept the latest proposals or shut up.

Palestinians from the Shuafat refugee camp in occupied East Jerusalem watch as Israeli forces repair the separation wall dividing the camp from the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Zeev on 27 April 2018 (AFP)

“It is about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining,” the crown prince was reported as saying.

Trump and Israel are demanding that Palestinians accept a number of conditions as a basis for restarting talks: the loss of East Jerusalem; the abandonment of the right of return and folding of the refugee issue; and defunding of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

But none of this is enough. The thought must by now have occurred, even to them, that Trump’s agenda and theirs do not necessarily match.

Iranian influence

Bin Salman has recast Saudi foreign policy. It was passively aggressive; now it is just plain aggressive. Its strategic aim is to coordinate the Sunni Arab pushback against Iranian military and political influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

An air campaign against Iranian nuclear facilities and its air defence would be the culmination of this policy.

Trump is not part of the region, but the next ruler of Saudi Arabia is. When those American and Israeli fighters return to their bases, Saudi will feel the consequences first and foremost

If there is to be a conventional war against Iran, it will be an American and Israeli one. The Saudi role in such a war would be to provide cover, support and bases, as it was in George W Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.

The lesson of Iraq was that long before the retreat, the US lost control of the country it had conquered, ceding power to Shia politicians in Iran’s pocket. The Iraqi war was started and conducted by American rules, and ended on American terms. The Saudi interest in these was secondary to Washington’s. The result now is a belated Saudi offensive to buy influence in Iraq. 

Trump is not part of the region, but the next ruler of Saudi Arabia is. When those American and Israeli fighters return to their bases, Saudi will feel the consequences first and foremost. There are any number of highly organised and trained Shia militias who could do the job.

Devastating effects

If Bush’s war on Iraq opened up a sectarian hell in the region, a war on Iran could be far worse, and the Saudi kingdom would find itself in the epicentre of this maelstrom.

Unlike 2003, the Saudis would not be protected by a brotherly feeling from fellow Arab states. When you kick out hundreds of thousands of foreign Arab workers from your land - 800,000 expatriates left Saudi in the last year and a half, according to one estimate - you lose a lot of goodwill in Jordan, Egypt and the other countries that depend on their remittances.

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An Iranian war may suit a US neo-conservative (and Netanyahu’s) regional agenda, but its effects on the stability of Saudi Arabia, and specifically the new king himself, may be devastating. The Saudi strategy should not be to dominate the Sunni world and cast the Palestinians to one side. It should be to build an alliance of Sunni states as a balance to Iran. 

For their personal interest, Bin Salman’s and Bin Zayed’s bet on Trump is looking increasingly like a misjudged one.

- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on 21 May 2017 shows Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed chatting with US President Donald Trump during a meeting in Riyadh (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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