Trump's pandering to Saudi Arabia is tearing the Middle East apart

Trump's pandering to Saudi Arabia is tearing the Middle East apart
Comment: Washington is playing a dangerous game by supporting Saudi Arabia's bellicose stances on key regional issues, writes Jonathon Fenton-Harvey.
5 min read
19 Sep, 2019
Trump's first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia [Getty]
Donald Trump once again highlighted his dangerous obsession with pandering to Saudi Arabia over political matters, following the missile attack on the major Aramco oil facility, which was swiftly blamed on Iran.

Remarkably, though US officials hastily pinned the assault on Tehran, Trump announced that he and his administration "are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed", suggesting that Iran was responsible.

As well as revealing a degree of incoherence within the Trump administration's foreign policy stance, Washington clearly places excessive bias in Riyadh's narratives.

Trump backs what he calls Saudi Arabia's "right to defend itself", after Riyadh suddenly claimed the attack was "unquestionably sponsored by Iran", having suggested that the missile debris indicates Iranian origin. Without a thorough investigation, the president appears immediately ready to adopt Riyadh's arguments on regional affairs.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, tying the attack to Iran, called it an "act of war", and has sought to unify a coalition against Tehran.

Meanwhile,  Trump so far has only looked towards more sanctions as the best possible option, announcing on Twitter that he instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to "substantially increase sanctions" on Iran.

Saudi Arabia has provoked antagonism towards Iran, perceiving Tehran as an adversary for regional influence, which Riyadh itself has aggressively pursued. The 2015 Iran nuclear deal, some analysts believe, gave Tehran the potential to become more economically influential in the region, triggering Riyadh's attempts to get Trump to act againt it.

Washington clearly places excessive bias in Riyadh's narratives

While Saudi Arabia would not support military action at this point, as it could obviously be a target itself, it has backed increasing US pressure on Iran. "We will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, and not in Saudi Arabia," said Mohammad bin Salman in a 2017 interview.

Apart from the obvious bilateral economic ties, one reason for Trump's support for Saudi Arabia's narratives is that Riyadh along with its close regional ally the UAE has established powerful lobbying networks within the US government. These have helped sway Trump's administration further towards supporting its foreign policy agenda, and adopting its narratives.

Following the lead of Saudi Arabia and Israel, who have opposed the nuclear deal, Trump ignored previous agreements and hit Tehran with harsher sanctions.

While Iran has since breached the commitments of the deal, it had upheld its side of the JCPOA until the US' unilateratal withdrawal. For their part, opponents of the deal use Iran's actions to justify sanctions, and prolong an antagonistic cycle of escalation against Tehran.

In this context, Trump's blind policies have now allowed further regional fracturing. Not only has his stance on Iran further triggered regional divisions, Iran has now taken a more assertive regional stance in response.

Meanwhile Washington's support for Saudi Arabia's bombing campaign in Yemen has created greater Gulf instability and one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time.

Read more: Aramco attacks expose Saudi vulnerability and shaky GCC security

Furthermore, despite US figures such as Pompeo
claiming support for Riyadh helps combat Iranian influence in Yemen, the war has gradually pushed the Houthis closer to Tehran, and Houthi officials recently met their Iranian counterparts in Tehran, showing increased cooperation.

The Riyadh-led intervention in March 2015 has destroyed the Yemeni state, giving the Houthis more room to establish themselves in the North, while worsening divisions in the country.

In addition to claiming responsibility for the Aramco attack - a claim that remains unproven - the Houthis have been firing on Saudi territory, particularly in recent months, aiming for airports and other key infrastructure. Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Saria has also
threatened to target UAE positions for its role in the conflict.

Washington is playing a dangerous game by tolerating and even supporting Saudi Arabia's stances on key regional issues. The Trump administration's failure to properly address Saudi Arabia's actions in Yemen - not to mention hold it accountable for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi - have severely compromised Gulf security. 

Regardless of the Houthis' role in this latest attack, further escalations will occur as long as Washington blindly supports Riyadh's continued involvement in Yemen.

Following the lead of Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump ignored previous agreements and hit Tehran with harsher sanctions

Similarly, Trump has appeased Israel's narratives on Iran, which are closely aligned with those of Saudi Arabia. Israeli ministers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have often made provocative comments towards Tehran. In response to the attack on Saudi oil fields, Israel has unsurprisingly said it supports increased sanctions on Iran, too.

Trump has an almost spotless record of pandering to Israel's wishes, such as the US embassy move to Jerusalem, and his endorsement of the Golan Heights - Israeli-occupied since 1973 but still internationally recognised as Syrian territory - belonging to Israel.

In recent weeks, the Israeli air force has pursued an aggressive campaign, reportedly against hostile and Iran-linked targets in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. A provocative move, and with Trump refusing to acknowledge or condemn these acts of aggression, it paves the way for more regional turmoil. Trump's blind support for Israel and Saudi Arabia  gives the green light for such destabilising actions.

The US will mostly likely avoid direct action against Tehran for now, perhaps a sign that Saudi Arabia should not be so complacent about receiving undying support from its US ally. But these escalating tensions which Washington has willingly aggravated, only increase the risks.

There have, meanwhile, been some glimmers of hope for ending this regional polarisation. The US has indicated that they could talk with Houthi rebels, an option that should be taken seriously, rather than blindly continuing military support for the coalition. Meanwhile, there are renewed congressional efforts to end military support to the Saudi kingdom.

Other members of Congress have expressed opposition to Trump's pandering to Saudi Arabia. Representative Tulsi Gabbard - for all her faults - highlighted that any significant military action against Iran to help Riyadh without congressional approval would be unconstitutional and therefore illegal.

We can only hope that these outliers could establish a precedent for more peaceful, diplomatic measures, with greater potential to reconsider Washington's blind and harmful support for the actions of its regional partners.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.