THE DESTINATIONS OF THE FIRST OFFICIAL INTERNATIONAL TRIPS taken by US presidents illustrate a good deal about their impending foreign policy stances. Obama’s first trips were to Canada and the UK. Clinton and George Bush Snr each went to Canada and Japan. Reagan and George W Bush each went to Mexico and Canada. Jimmy Carter went to the UK and Switzerland after taking office.
Donald Trump by contrast chose to go to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Not only are these both countries with hard right wing nationalist leaderships, but they are both engaged in destructive wars against their vastly poorer neighbours. The tight clutch between the new US President and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is sadly predictable. The rapid re-embrace of Saudi Arabia though is the more revealing move.
Most of the critical commentary that mentioned the visit to Saudi Arabia focused on US arms sales. The Obama administration had briefly halted these sales after the Saudi military bombed a funeral in Yemen last October, killing at least 140 people. The bombardment and blockade of Yemen, which the new Saudi King began two months after taking office, has led the country to the brink of widespread famine, a large-scale outbreak of cholera and the mass displacement of populations. Trump reversed that path of signalling caution, instead putting into effect one of the largest arms deals in history, worth around $350 billion over a ten year period.
But to see Trump as just hawking weapons on behalf of US arms companies to the oil despots is to miss the bigger picture. Trump’s visit amounted to the most significant deepening of the alliance between military power, represented in the Persian Gulf region by the string of US air force and naval bases, and the economic might of the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia. This is an ever-deepening entanglement, which locks the Saudi government into long-term dependence upon the US.
Meanwhile the US benefits in turn from increasing oil consumption as petrodollars are invested back into the US - so much for limiting climate change. It’s no coincidence that the alliance is under the stewardship of Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of the world’s largest oil company, ExxonMobile, who switched seamlessly in 2016 from that role to being US Secretary of State.
This is no innocent alliance. King Salman - or rather his ambitious son, Muhammad bin Salman, now defence minister and deputy crown prince - has been behind a virulent new strain of religious nationalism, in which domestic dissidents and other countries in the region which don’t toe the Saudi line are castigated as heretics. One of Saudi Arabia’s leading religious figures, Salah bin Humaid, who is both the imam of the Grand Mosque at Mecca and the speaker of the crown-appointed consultative assembly, was recently filmed firing rockets at Yemen, while his followers shouted out religious slogans. But of course Saudi Arabia has history when it comes to the glorification of extreme violence in the name of religion.
The more recent attempts to isolate Qatar demonstrate the extent to which regional domination is now a central part of Saudi Arabia’s strategy. Qatar has itself backed some unsavoury regional allies, but its chief sin from a Saudi perspective was to attempt to formulate an independent foreign policy. Trump’s first instinct was to give his unconditional backing to Saudi Arabia, before he was reminded that the US has its largest air base in the Middle East in Qatar.
The most dangerous prospect comes from the unprecedented level of hostility emanating from Saudi Arabia towards Iran. Previously Iran was a scapegoat, the country blamed for fomenting trouble whenever the Shia Muslim minority in eastern Saudi Arabia - which happens to be the most oil-rich region of the country - complained about the high level of discrimination against them. In the last few years, what started as a convenient excuse seems to have passed into the strident belief of the rulers. The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the EU, the US and others is the only basis on which peace in the Persian Gulf region can be preserved.
As Trump, in league with Saudi Arabia, now seeks to undermine that deal, that only leaves its European signatories who can stand up for it.
is a Lecturer and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, specializing in political theory and international law.