The oil-for-security alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia, forged in 1945 when Franklin D. Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz aboard a US Navy destroyer, is now over. Just look at the American reaction to the attack by Iran on Saudi oil facilities. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo duly called it an ‘act of war’; the Wall Street Journal told us the attack was ‘the big one’. But then nothing: President Donald Trump merely shrugged and declared the US energy independent. ‘We don’t need Middle Eastern Oil & Gas,’ he said.
Industry experts warned that such an assessment was premature; but oil prices stabilised and the sound of war drums faded. We are witnessing the beginning of a new geopolitics in the Middle East.
Trump has embraced his America First instincts, and it’s not difficult to see why. He would have nothing to gain — and every-thing to lose — by jumping into another Gulf quagmire, not least when it comes to his chances of re-election. He is in tune with the overwhelming majority of Americans horrified at the prospect of war with Iran in defence of the House of Saud. Opinion polls show huge majorities — among both Democrat and Republican voters — opposed to any such action. Evangelical Christians support war, because they believe it would make Israel safer. But they would vote for Trump come what may.
For Saudi Arabia, this spells disaster. There is, of course, no good time for a country to have half its oil production capability bombed to redundancy. It’s now clear, though, that for Saudi Arabia, the drone and cruise missile attacks on the crucial Khurais and Abqaiq facilities came at the worst possible moment. For a start, they happened just three days after the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. This year, amid the commemorations, the FBI announced it will soon be releasing the names of Saudi officials alleged to have directly aided some of the 15 of the 19 hijackers who were Saudi nationals (a ratio Americans will never forgive and forget).
Next week also marks a year since the barbaric butchering of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, an assassination that provoked universal revulsion. The UN has concluded there is credible evidence that Saudi’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is likely personally liable for orchestrating the crime, and he is still a pariah in the West as a result. In short, in the US, the Saudi brand is now more toxic than botulinum.
Hence the shift in tone on the part of a liberal US media usually as hawkish as the neoconservatives when it comes to bombing foreign countries. The only time they have found anything good to say about Trump was when he launched cruise missile strikes against Iranian ally Syria. However, this time round they are caught on the horns of a dilemma. They would have been cheerleading military aggression just as they prepared their extensive anniversary coverage of Khashoggi’s death, in the name of defending a country whose de facto leader allegedly ordered the mafia-style hit on their fellow journalist. Even the grandiose American op-ed columnists found that circle impossible to square — and just as the Sunni-Israeli axis seeking to contain Iran is also derailing at breakneck speed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ally of bin Salman whose anti-Iran obsession similarly borders on insane, this week for the first time missed a UN General Assembly meeting in New York, which he typically uses to lambast what he argues is Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme. Instead, he was battling for his political career after failing to win elections. If he cannot form a government, he faces trials on corruption charges. The even more unhinged John Bolton, having been sacked as National Security Adviser, is likewise in the political wilderness.
Meanwhile, the UAE has reduced the number of troops it has in war-torn Yemen, where it is fighting the Houthis alongside Saudi Arabia, while moderating its tone on Iran. By shifting its ‘military first’ strategy to a ‘peace first’ plan, the country is signalling an end to the conflict — an implicit admission that the Iran-backed Houthis cannot be defeated. And key Saudi ally Egypt, seeing the first major public demonstrations against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, may well soon descend into chaos.
In contrast, Iran’s sphere of influence is holding strong. Syria is mostly stable, Hezbollah dominates Lebanese politics, Iraq is threatening to expel all US forces, and Iran’s economic and military ties with China and Russia are more extensive than ever.
In the immediate aftermath of the Saudi attack, Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard tweeted: ‘Having our country act as Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not “America First”.’ But Trump has only increased sanctions on Iran, and is sending a few hundred more US troops to Saudi Arabia. At the UN this week, he reiterated that he did not want war with Iran, said the future belonged to ‘patriots’ not ‘globalists’, and again called on the Iranians to negotiate — words that echo his America First principles and that will hardly have reassured the Saudis.
Shortly after taking office, Trump boasted of securing Saudi arms contracts and direct economic investment, $110 billion immediately and $350 billion over ten years. This was in addition to a Saudi promise that much of its infrastructure spending in the US would be ploughed into the Rust Belt swing states Trump needs to win. The Saudis even spent tens of millions of dollars staying in Trump’s hotels during official visits. But when push came to shove with Iran, the Saudis were left defenceless and Trump threw the fleeced princes to the Shia wolves.
‘You can’t con people, at least not for long,’ Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. ‘You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.’ The Saudis just did, and one suspects they now have a far clearer idea than Gabbard when it comes to the question of which partner got shafted.
John R. Bradley is the author of four books on the Middle East.