During the election campaign, candidate Donald Trump did not miss any opportunity to denounce the Saudis as freeloaders. He said when he becomes president (although neither he nor anyone in his inner circle believed he had a chance in hell of winning), he would make the Saudis pay.
So how did Trump come around to embracing the same freeloading Saudis, particularly the young, erratic crown prince Muhammad bin Salman? In his just-released book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Michael Wolff provides the answer. True, there are many other insights into the inner workings (or non-workings) of the Trump White House, which could be best described as a madhouse. More on that later but first let us deal with the Trump-Bin Salman embrace.
With his young son-in-law Jared Kushner ensconced as his trusted personal advisor, the Orthodox Jewish boy went to work with the extremist Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, especially Bin Salman (BS). The two hit it off fabulously well: each needing the other. Bani Saud had finally found their Jewish cousins!
Upset with Barack Obama for refusing to heed their advice to militarily confront Islamic Iran that was piling up victories, the Arabian rulers sulked in their palace during much of his presidency. Unexpectedly, along came Donald Trump. They saw in him an opportunity to reset relations. Trump’s unorthodox approach suited both parties well, especially dealing through family connections.
The Najdi Bedouins have traditionally made decisions in the inner sanctums of the family huddle although the old King Salman and his ruthlessly ambitious son, BS have now ditched that, at least internally, and replaced it with one-man rule. It is not without peril as other “royals” are unhappy with the imposition of an upstart in the top slot, hence BS’ tight embrace of Kushner, and by extension Trump.
“When MBS offered himself to Kushner as his guy in the Saudi kingdom, that was ‘like meeting someone nice at your first day of boarding school,’ said Kushner’s friend,” according to Wolff.
This is also the style that Trump prefers. It is a lot easier to deal with one person than having to go through elaborate protocol getting others on board to get their approval. The family-to-family dealings suited Trump fine. “His was a much simpler view: who’s got the power? Give me his number,” writes Wolff about Trump’s style of operations.
Another Trumpian trait highlighted in the book is, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Trump’s one fixation was and remains Islamic Iran. During the campaign, he missed no opportunity to berate Obama for striking a “bad deal,” referring to the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. And he threatened to shred it as soon as he was elected even though it is not a bilateral but a multilateral agreement involving other countries as well. The mad dogs Trump has surrounded himself with — mediocre generals that have failed miserably on the battlefield but need scapegoats to blame others for their failures — have further reinforced Iran’s image as the “bad guy.”
For the record, the US military budget is more than $650 billion annually, plus at least 10,000 nuclear weapons. Iran’s defence budget is a paltry $15 billion and it has no nuclear weapons, yet the Americans are terrified of Tehran’s power. The Washington warlords blame Iran for their failures in Iraq and Syria and its growing influence in the region, “hence everybody opposed to Iran was a pretty good guy,” as far as Trump is concerned.
If the Americans are so scared of Iran, what chance do the amateur Saudis have? Their soldiers cannot even march in a straight line. Bani Saud are constantly looking for mercenaries to protect them. When Pakistan mustered the courage to say “no” to the Saudi demand for soldiers to fight in Yemen, they hired South American and African mercenaries. There are also Blackwater mercenaries operating in the Kingdom but only to protect Bin Salman and his close family (not other members of the Bani Saud clan). In Trump’s election, BS found his opportunity.
“Global liberal leadership had been all but paralyzed by the election of Donald Trump — indeed, by the very existence of Donald Trump. But it was an inverted universe in the Middle East,” writes Wolff. The two men — or an old man and the boy — needed each other. At their first meeting after Trump’s election, BS had promised Kushner that soon there would be “good news” for the US. Trump the quintessential salesman needed deals to make money; BS was eager to promise whatever money the Americans wanted in return for their support in his quest to grab power.
It was after this promise of “good news” that BS was invited to the White House in March 2017 to meet Trump. The two were photographed together shaking hands and smiling. Such protocol is usually reserved for heads of government/state and BS was not even the crown prince yet; he was still the deputy crown prince but with Trump’s backing he would see to it that this changed quickly.
Following the Trump-BS meeting, the narcissist was invited to visit Saudi Arabia where Bani Saud would not only line up puppet Muslim rulers to pay homage to him but also throw lavish parties to massage his over-sized ego.
This was Trump’s first overseas venture to escape from unrelenting attacks at home. The Saudis took him, his wife Melania, daughter Ivanka and her husband (the new whizkid) in gold golf carts and treated them to a lavish dinner that cost $75 million. Trump was made to sit on a throne like chair. Further massaging his ego was the award of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz medal, the highest civilian award in the Kingdom. All these were capped by announcement of a $110 billion arms deal that would rise to $350 billion in 10 years.
Bruce Riedel, the former CIA analyst, has questioned these deals saying nothing has been signed. Yet Trump was beyond himself describing the Saudi arms purchases as an opportunity that would create “jobs, jobs, and more jobs” in America while Washington would provide “beautiful weapons” to Saudi Arabia.
If Trump was effusive in his praise for Kushner, “Jared’s gotten the Arabs totally on our side. Done deal,” the decrepit Saudi king was not far behind in praising his own son. Trump’s visit formed the backdrop for pushing Muhammad bin Nayif, hitherto the crown prince holding the important portfolio of the Interior Ministry, off his perch. This occurred shortly after Trump’s visit to the Kingdom (May 20–22). Bin Nayif was removed from his position in the middle of the night, forced to pledge allegiance to Bin Salman and then put under house arrest. Bin Nayif has not been seen in public since.
After the midnight palace coup in June and the November 4 arrests of dozens of princes seen as potential rivals to BS’ ascension to power, Trump boasted to friends that he and Jared had engineered this, “We’ve put our man on top!”
Indeed. The uneducated boy from Riyadh and his father’s favourite son would become king, courtesy of Trump, equally uneducated and a “f… moron” in the words of right-wing media mogul, Rupert Murdoch. Trump’s eye is on the big carrot BS has dangled before the world: the Saudi Oil Company Aramco’s IPO (initial public offering) that is worth $2 trillion. The American president would like this to be floated on the New York Stock Exchange. Will BS oblige? Informed observers are skeptical and they have good arguments to support their position. BS wanted to become crown prince and needed to eliminate potential rivals. This he has achieved by projecting Trump as his “friend.” His “royal” cousins would not dare stand up to godfather America. Floating the IPO on the New Stock Exchange runs the risk of losing everything. There are currently court cases against Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 attacks. These have already put at risk the $750 billion the Saudis have invested in the US.
BS failed in the other tasks as well that Trump had assigned to him: undermining Hizbullah by forcing the Lebanese Prime Minister Sa‘d Hariri to resign, and get the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to surrender. Hariri’s forced resignation was handled in such a clumsy manner that BS got egg all over his face. And when he tried to bribe and threaten Abbas to abandon the quest for a Palestinian state — even a truncated one — the latter demurred.
Given Trump’s lack of intelligence and total disinterest in detail, he may forget all this in a few weeks or months. Or at least this is what the Najdi Bedouins are hoping for. Besides, the Trump White House is a zoo; there is constant infighting among staff members while Trump is obsessed with showmanship.
The narcissist likes praise, plenty of it. Cabinet and staff meetings are little more than sessions where everyone is expected to extol his non-existent virtues. Pointing to his errors even in the most polite manner raises his ire. He begins to froth at the mouth like a gored bull in an arena. That is when people run for cover.
If the Trump White House is in such disarray, would it have any time to worry about some petty potentate in the desert?
The big question, however, is whether BS would be able to retain his hold on power after his father is dead and gone? Equally critical, whether Trump himself would be able to hold on to power and complete his first term in office?