Don’t expect Trump to send in the cavalry if MBS has to circle wagons
The new relationship between the president and the Saudi crown prince might be showing signs of wear and tear
Whether or not he is a purveyor of “alternative facts”, Michael Wolff in Fire and Fury tries to get inside the mind of Donald Trump when working out Washington’s new Middle East foreign policy.
In Wolff’s words, this is what the United States president was thinking.
“There are basically four players [or at least we can forget everybody else], Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he writes in his highly controversial book. “The first three can be united against the fourth.
“And Egypt and Saudi Arabia, given what they want with respect to Iran – and anything else that does not interfere with the United States’ interests – will pressure the Palestinians to make a deal,” he goes on to say.
By now, what had been established was that Henry Kissinger, who served as the US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under President Richard Nixon, was advising Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy Jared Kushner.
At the same time, the Saudi Crown Prince in-waiting, Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS, was building a rapport with Kushner and pushing his “2030 Vision” to put Dubai in the shade.
What could be described as the Kushner and MBS New Middle East Plan started to gel when Mohammad bin Salman visited the White House in March 2017.
After offering an array of deals to Trump, he invited the president to Riyadh in May. There was also the vague promise, which was actually recycled from the Obama years, that Saudi Arabia would buy US$110 billion in weapons and invest $350 billion in the US in the next 10 years.
Then in Fire and Fury on page 233, we have the clincher. “Within weeks of the trip, MBS, detaining MBN [Mohammed bin Nayef] in the dead of night, would force him to relinquish the Crown Prince title, which MBS would then assume for himself,” Wolff writes. “Trump would tell friends that he and Jared engineered this: ‘We’ve put our man on top’.”
It is, of course, impossible to say whether “would tell” refers to a direct quote from the president. That must be open to scrutiny. But what is certain, and confirmed by sources close to the House of Saud, is that MBS did bond with Kushner.
Crucially, he did interpret Trump’s effusiveness as a green light to go after Qatar. After all, the president appeared to have accepted Riyadh’s spin that Qatar was promoting terror by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. And that Saudi Arabia was innocent of such ‘terrorist-supporting’ claims.
Additionally, MBS gave the impression Riyadh would offer the US a military base to replace Doha’s al-Udeid.
Incidentally, the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has strong connections with the base from his time as head of US Central Command, prior to his role as military adviser to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) under the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
All this fits into a somewhat plausible narrative that Kushner laid down the groundwork for Trump to give MBS permission for his plan to crack down on Qatar and replace MBN as Crown Prince, a former CIA favorite.
Certainly, all the available information points to that, as well as well as alleged German intelligence since late 2016.
Everyone knows what happened when Saudi and other members, including the UAE, of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) rolled out their “blockade” of Qatar. Iran and Turkey supported Doha, while GCC “unity” was stretched to breaking point.
It remains unclear whether the US will eventually receive the hundreds of billions of dollars in new Saudi investments allegedly promised by MBS. Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is close to Microsoft founder Bill Gates and media mogul Rupert Murdoch, remains under house arrest as part of Riyadh’s clampdown on prominent members connected with the Saudi royal family.
The prince has not come out with a single Twitter message since his arrest, which is strange considering he partly owns the online news and social networking service.
Political apple cart
This quirky paradox has to do with the allegedly $2 trillion Aramco initial public offering, which was slated for later this year but could now take place in 2019, according to Saudi officials. It is part of MBS’s game plan: Why upset the political apple cart when an IPO world of untold riches beckons?
Aramco’s eulogies are the staple of Wall Street investment banks. But they could be in for a dose of ‘shock and awe’. Aramco’s IPO might not go to New York, which is considered by Trump as a done deal, or even London.
Ali Shihabi, the founder of the Arabia Foundation think tank in Washington, has a different view. He has suggested that the Chinese could directly purchase a slice of Aramco followed by a limited IPO on the Saudi Stock Exchange.
This, he concluded, would be the best option for Riyadh. “Privately placing shares with a major strategic investor like China has the advantage of being simpler, quicker, and less subject to the vagaries of public markets than a public flotation in London or New York,” Shihabi said.
If this does happen, Trump will hardly be thrilled with MBS. You can also add to the mix, the Palestine problem. MBS will simply be unable to deliver on the promise of an Israel-Palestine-Arab world Grand Deal, which looks certain to have been discussed in Washington and Riyadh.
That is virtually impossible after the president’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
So, in the end, who is on top? Since playbooks on the Middle East and Saudi Arabia have been written and ripped up with amazing regularity, don’t expect the Trump White House to send in the cavalry if MBS has to circle the wagons.