Imagine that you paid a special visit to a family you hardly knew halfway around the world and they were so pleased to see you that they spent an estimated $68 million on your welcome, while mounting "festivities" like the one in which you danced with them sword in hand? Yes, you'd probably be thrilled, even if you weren't Donald Trump, a man who seemingly can't get enough of other people making a fuss over him. What I'm describing, of course, was the initial stop on his first trip abroad as president in May 2017. He landed in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where that country's royal family -- especially the canny fellow behind the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- feasted and fetêd him, while praising him everlastingly. Extravaganza though it was, it would prove to be little more than an initial down payment, a drop in the bucket, in an ongoing Saudi campaign to shape the new administration's foreign policy in the Middle East, as Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, and TomDispatch regular William Hartung so vividly explain today.
If that doesn't frighten you, it should. After all, the Saudi royals have one thing in mind above all else: the destruction of Iran. And now, from the president who wants to shred the nuclear deal with that country ("Insane. Ridiculous. It should have never been made") to his latest national security adviser, John Bolton (who's long had the urge to "bomb, bomb Iran"), to his latest secretary of state, Mike Pompeo (another first-class Iranophobe), it's an administration primed to take on -- and possibly try to take out -- the Iranian regime. Only the other day, Pompeo finished off his first trip as secretary of state by "swaggering" through the Middle East hawking a harder than hard line on Iran and that nuclear deal.
So many eyes here are focused right now on the Koreas, not Iran. Eighteen Republican members of the House, for instance, just nominated the president for a Nobel Prize for making peace in Korea (a nomination that fits well on the preemptive path blazed by Barack Obama's Nobel Prize). While peace is threatening to break out in Asia, the Saudis may get their well-financed wish -- and it won't be for peace in the Middle East. For the Trump administration, a shredded nuclear deal and a new set of conflicts in a region that has proven disastrous for the U.S. seems to have real potential for a future prize all its own. (Maybe the Norwegian Booby Prize.) Even for the Saudis, the results of that $68 million investment could prove anything but appetizing, as in the old adage: be careful what you wish for, it might just come true.
So think of the Saudi-Trump relationship, to use a phrase from Freeman and Hartung's piece, as the love affair from hell. Tom
It's another Trump affair -- this time without the allegations of sexual harassment (and worse), the charges and counter-charges, the lawsuits, and all the rest. So it hasn't gotten the sort of headlines that Stormy Daniels has garnered, but when it comes to influence, American foreign policy, and issues of peace and war, it couldn't matter more or be a bigger story (or have more money or lobbyists involved in it). Think of it as the great love affair of the age of Trump, the one between The Donald and the Saudi royals. And if there's any place to start laying out the story, it's naturally at a wedding, in this case in a tragic ceremony that happened to take place in Yemen, not Washington.
On Sunday, April 22nd, planes from a Saudi Arabian-led coalition dropped two bombs on a wedding in Yemen. The groom was injured, the bride killed, along with at least 32 other civilians, many of them children.
In response, the Saudis didn't admit fault or express condolences to the victim's families. Instead, they emphasized that their "coalition continues to take all the precautionary and preventative measures" to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen. This disconnect between Saudi rhetoric and the realities on the ground isn't an anomaly -- it's been the norm. For four years, the Saudis and their allies have been conducting airstrikes with reckless abandon there, contributing to a staggering civilian death toll that now reportedly tops 10,000.
The Saudis and their close ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have repeatedly reassured American policymakers that they're doing everything imaginable to prevent civilian casualties, only to launch yet more airstrikes against civilian targets, including schools, hospitals, funerals, and marketplaces.
For example, last May when Donald Trump landed in Saudi Arabia on his first overseas visit as president, Saudi lobbyists distributed a "fact sheet" about the prodigious efforts of the country's military to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen. Five days after Trump landed in Riyadh, however, an air strike killed 24 civilians at a Yemeni market. In December, such strikes killed more than 100 Yemeni civilians in 10 days. The Saudi response: condemning the United Nations for its criticisms of such attacks and then offering yet more empty promises.
Through all of this, President Trump has remained steadfast in his support, while the U.S. military continues to provide aerial refueling for Saudi air strikes as well as the bombs used to kill so many of those civilians. But why? In a word: Saudi Arabian and UAE money in prodigious amounts flowing into Trump's world -- to U.S. arms makers and to dozens of lobbyists, public-relations firms, and influential think tanks in Washington.
Trump's Love Affair with the Saudi Regime
Saudi Arabia's influence over Donald Trump hit an initial peak in his first presidential visit abroad, which began in Riyadh in May 2017. The Saudi royals, who had clearly grasped the nature of The Donald, offered him the one thing he seems to love most: flattery, flattery, and more flattery. The kingdom rolled out the red carpet big time. The fanfare included posting banners with photos of President Trump and Saudi King Salman along the roadside from the airport to Riyadh, projecting a five-story-high image of Trump onto the side of the hotel where he would stay, and hosting a male-invitees-only concert by country singer Toby Keith.
According to the Washington Post, "The Saudis hosted the Trumps and the Kushners at the family's royal palace, ferried them around in golf carts, and celebrated Trump with a multimillion-dollar gala in his honor, complete with a throne-like seat for the president." In addition, they presented him with the Abdul-Aziz al-Saud medal, a trinket named for Saudi Arabia's first king, considered the highest honor the kingdom can bestow on a foreign leader.
The Saudis then gave Trump something he undoubtedly valued even more than all the fawning -- a chance to pose as the world's greatest deal maker. For the trip, Trump brought along a striking collection of CEOs from major American companies, including Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, and Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group. Big numbers on the potential value of future U.S.-Saudi business deals were tossed around, including $110 billion in arms sales and hundreds of billions more in investments in energy, petrochemicals, and infrastructure, involving projects in both countries.