Trump hitches Mideast pol­icy to a reck­less prince

Texarkana Gazette - - OPINION - Trudy Ru­bin

Have Pres­i­dent Trump and his son-in-law bet their en­tire Mideast pol­icy on a reck­less 32-year-old Saudi crown prince who is get­ting in over his head?

That’s the ques­tion that should grab Amer­i­cans as we watch the wild game of thrones play­ing out in Saudi Ara­bia, where, last week, Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man (known as MBS) ar­rested 11 princes along with an ad­di­tional 190 of­fi­cials and busi­ness­men. An­other prom­i­nent prince died in a mys­te­ri­ous he­li­copter crash.

What’s riv­et­ing the Mideast is the de­gree to which Trump has fully em­braced the youth­ful prince (and his el­derly fa­ther, King Sal­man). Who can for­get the scenes of the pres­i­dent sword danc­ing as he was lav­ishly feted and flat­tered on a May trip to Riyadh, and promised (un­ful­filled) bil­lions in arms deals? More­over, first son-in­law Jared Kush­ner, a new buddy of the young prince, has made three trips to Riyadh this year, the lat­est a se­cret four-day visit last month.

Trump tweeted, in the midst of his Asia trip: “I have great con­fi­dence in King Sal­man and the Crown Prince of Saudi Ara­bia. They know ex­actly what they are do­ing.” Clearly the purge doesn’t bother a pres­i­dent who ad­mires strong­men.

More to the point, Trump and Kush­ner ap­pear to be re­ly­ing on the crown prince to spear­head a Sunni Arab cam­paign that will roll back Shi­ite Iran’s ex­pand­ing in­flu­ence in the Mideast (and god­fa­ther a peace be­tween the Pales­tini­ans and Is­rael). A look at the prince’s track record should have damp­ened their en­thu­si­asm for MBS.

Sure, Prince Mo­hammed talks a good game. He says he wants to mod­ern­ize the king­dom, fight cor­rup­tion, let women drive, and pro­mote a more mod­er­ate form of Is­lam. That would cer­tainly be a wel­come change, since Saudi Ara­bia’s ex­port of their fun­da­men­tal­ist Wa­habi vari­ant of Is­lam has paved the way for the rise of ji­hadism around the world.

Yet his roundup of the king­dom’s most prom­i­nent busi­ness­men in a king­dom where cor­rup­tion is en­demic looks more like a Pu­ti­nesque shake­down than a move to­ward a trans­par­ent sys­tem. Any seized funds may be used to un­der­write MBS’s grandiose scheme to build a new $500 bil­lion high-tech me­trop­o­lis in the desert called NEOM.

As for mod­er­at­ing the Saudi brand of Is­lam, that would be a boon to the king­dom and the world. But al­though some cler­ics have been ar­rested, and re­li­gious po­lice lec­tured, the Crown Prince has cracked down as hard or harder on in­tel­lec­tu­als and peace­ful ac­tivists. In­deed, Ja­mal Khashoggi, the ed­i­tor of one of the coun­try’s more pro­gres­sive news­pa­pers, Al Watan, was forced out, af­ter pub­lish­ing an opinion piece that ques­tioned the aus­tere Saudi form of Is­lam.

So it ap­pears that Prince Mo­hammed’s main goal is to so­lid­ify power in his hands alone, in a coun­try where kings have long ruled by con­sen­sus. Whether he has the judg­ment to han­dle that power is ques­tion­able.

MBS’s im­pulses are most ques­tion­able when it comes to his cam­paign against Tehran, waged all over the re­gion. The Saudi track record vs. Iran is one of un­mit­i­gated fail­ure—de­spite U.S. back­ing.

Yet this is the cam­paign Trump and Kush­ner are count­ing on the prince to win.

In Syria, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama sub­con­tracted to the Saudis to arm and fund Sunni rebels against Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad. The win­ner: As­sad— backed by Rus­sia air­power and Shi­ite mili­ti­a­men di­rected by Iran.

In Iraq, af­ter the fall of Sad­dam Hus­sein the Saudis re­fused U.S. re­quests to help Iraqi gov­ern­ments coun­ter­bal­ance Ira­nian in­flu­ence. Fi­nally, Riyadh is reach­ing out to Bagh­dad, with too lit­tle, too late. Iran has heav­ily pen­e­trated Iraq’s gov­ern­ment and se­cu­rity forces.

In neigh­bor­ing Ye­men, just af­ter his fa­ther be­came king, MBS launched a war against Houthi in­sur­gents who had ties to Tehran. The war has dragged on for two years, as Saudi and United Arab Emi­rates fighter jets bomb civil­ians re­lent­lessly, with full Trump sup­port and ad­vanced U.S. weapons. De­spite thou­sands of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and a hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter, it’s clear the Saudis can’t win with­out an un­likely ground in­va­sion. The longer the war goes on in Ye­men, the more the Houthis are bound to Iran.

In Qatar, the Crown Prince launched a block­ade of the small, oil-rich Gulf state, sup­pos­edly due to Ira­nian in­flu­ence. Trump tweeted his strong ap­proval (and is now be­lat­edly try­ing to undo the dam­age). The re­sult: Qatar has been pushed closer to Tehran, and the unity of Sunni Gulf Arabs against Tehran has been split.

And, in his lat­est move vs. Iran, MBS just forced the res­ig­na­tion of Lebanon’s Sunni prime min­is­ter, Saad Hariri, a busi­ness­man with close Saudi ties who was sum­moned to Riyadh and is now be­ing held there. Hariri was part of a Le­banese coali­tion gov­ern­ment which in­cluded politi­cians from the pow­er­ful Shi­ite mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah; that gov­ern­ment is now in dis­ar­ray. Lebanon now fears a new sec­tar­ian civil war.

But it is hard to fig­ure out what the Crown Prince is up to in Lebanon, since the Le­banese gov­ern­ment and army are too weak to stand up against Hezbol­lah, which is armed to the teeth by Iran. The Is­raeli press is busy spec­u­lat­ing that MBS is out to spark an­other war be­tween Is­rael and Hezbol­lah that nei­ther side wants now.

With the prince’s ter­ri­ble track record so far, you’d think that Trump would be brand­ing MBS a loser.

In­stead, Trump and Kush­ner have heed­lessly har­nessed their Mideast hopes to an un­de­pend­able Saudi prince.

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