Be careful, Saudis — your ally is the US, not Trump


Saudi Arabia has been pleased by its reinvigorated partnership with the US during the administration of President Donald Trump.

But the Saudi leadership has put itself in danger of becoming a partisan flashpoint in US politics, which would be disastrous for both countries.

Democrats taking control of the US House of Representatives seem set to use several controversies involving Saudi Arabia to attack Trump’s foreign policy.

The murder by Saudi agents of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October, the devastation inflicted by war in Yemen and a government crackdown on Saudi activists including women’s rights advocates, are all likely to be topics for Trump’s Democratic critics in coming months.

Some Republicans have expressed objections, too. Trump allies like Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida have used criticism of Saudi Arabia to try to push the president to adopt a traditionally internationalist foreign policy.

As a result, a sturdy alliance between two countries based on mutual global interests is turning into a bond between partisans fighting for political advantage.

The danger is that changing political circumstances in either country could weaken an alliance that both countries need.

Trump’s first trip overseas in 2017 began with several days in Riyadh, in which the Saudi government successfully appealed to his vanity and love of pomp.

Since then, Trump has often boasted about billions of dollars in new Saudi weapons contracts, while Saudi leaders celebrate Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with their arch-enemy Iran, and tough new sanctions against Tehran.

Both sides have contrasted their warm relationship with the chill that characterised former President Barack Obama’s second term.

To understand what’s at stake, it’s helpful to recall the alarm that some Israelis have expressed about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s similar bear hugs with Trump.

Netanyahu’s strong affiliation with US Republicans and his hostility to Obama challenges the traditional credo that the US-Israeli relationship should never be cast as partisan.

That’s why the main US pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has recently cultivated Democrats in an effort to offset Republican efforts to cast their party as Israeli’s only true friend, and to push back against criticism of Israel on the left wing of the Democratic Party.

But Israel is protected by powerful US political constituencies on both the left and the right that value the partnership.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t enjoy that advantage. Oil companies and defence contractors may push for exchanges like weapons sales, but no one could confuse those initiatives with an
abiding commitment to Riyadh’s

And with House Democrats and internationalist Republicans preparing to pile on in the coming months, 2019 is likely to be a rough year for Saudi Arabia in Washington.

Wisdom would counsel reaching out to Democrats, as some of Israel’s biggest American supporters are.

While there have been some Saudi efforts to do that, others are falling right into the trap of seeing conservative Republicans as allies and liberal Democrats as threats.

Some prominent Saudi media organisations even took the bizarre step recently of attacking two young Muslim women, both liberal Democrats, who were just elected to the US House of Representatives.

Saudi articles, talk shows and tweets condemned the new congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, as sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of the religious right of the Islamic world and opposes the Saudi royal family.

The logic appears to be that those who are not with Trump are in the thrall of Saudi Arabia’s two main regional antagonists, Iran and Qatar, and should be seen as threats.

If this line of attack spreads, it could well become a self-fulfilling Saudi prophecy.

The Obama administration did not abandon the alliance with Saudi Arabia in favour of a partnership with Iran, as is sometimes alleged. But Trump seems driven to do the opposite of whatever he thinks his predecessor championed.

If he’s able to persuade Americans to think of the alliance with Saudi Arabia as a link to his own administration rather than as the continuation of six decades of consistent US foreign policy, Democrats may take the same attitude in the future when it comes to Riyadh.

A nightmare for Saudi Arabia would be for Democrats to start mistakenly believing that their own foreign policy agenda, supposedly inspired by Obama, would mean rejecting the partnership with Riyadh and opening up a new cooperative dialogue with Tehran.

That would be a disaster for the US, too. Yet serious people on both sides are inadvertently promoting it, and what was once an absurd scenario is becoming disturbingly plausible. — Bloomberg

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.