Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is writing a book for Penguin/Random House about the national security decision-making of the Trump administration and has reported frequently from Saudi Arabia since 2005.
In Saudi Arabia in May 2017, President Donald Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and key members of the US Cabinet were treated to a royal, red carpet visit designed to appeal to Trump’s fetish for being fawned over, featuring elaborate, ceremonial sword dances in a blinged out, opulent palace that made Trump Tower look relatively modest.
Trump more than returned the favor, delivering a speech in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in which he told the leaders of the Gulf States and other Muslim heads of state that he wasn’t going to hassle them about human rights, declaring, “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be…”
That speech turned out to be a green light for the wild adventures of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, starting with an illegal blockade of Qatar two weeks later. Under bin Salman’s growing control of the Saudi state, the hands-off American policy has continued, despite a humanitarian nightmare in Yemen, the seeming extortion of Saudi oligarchs of tens of billions of dollars and, if the allegations of Turkish officials are to be believed, the murder and dismemberment of a prominent Saudi writer inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The mysterious disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, raises important questions, not only about the nature of the Saudi regime, but also about the Trump administration’s uncritical embrace of its 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a close alliance that was engineered by President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was awarded the Middle East portfolio during the presidential transition.
On the campaign trail Trump had repeatedly denounced the Iranian nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama administration as “the worst deal ever.” This stance very much aligned with the views of the Gulf States, led by the Saudis, who felt that President Obama was empowering Iran at their expense.
Like much of the rest of the world, though, the Saudis didn’t expect Trump to win the presidential election. When he did, the Saudis and their close allies the Emiratis had to scramble to build bridges to the Trump team.
Through intermediaries such as billionaire businessmen Thomas Barrack, a close friend of Trump who has worked in the Arab world for decades, as well as the longtime Emirati ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, Kushner was put in touch with Mohammed bin Salman, according to the New York Times.
Mohammed bin Salman’s 82-year-old father, King Salman, is monarch in name, but it’s clear that his son, who is widely known as MBS, is the center of power in the Saudi kingdom.
Both the scions of enormously wealthy, powerful families and only a few years apart in age, Kushner and MBS bonded over a belief they could transform the Middle East. They sometimes communicated through the secure WhatsApp messaging app that is used by members of the Saudi royal court, according to a Saudi source close to the royal family.
The Saudi royal family believed they could do business with the Trump family and vice versa, and the Saudis felt that Kushner spoke for the president.
For his part, Kushner believed that MBS could help deliver a US-brokered solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that their personal relationship could achieve what decades of professional diplomacy hadn’t achieved.
What’s more, Trump, who had campaigned on a promise of excluding Muslim immigrants from the United States, could use some Arab allies, while the Trump administration and the Gulf States were in lock step in their deep suspicion of the Iranian regime.
On March 14, 2017, early in the Trump administration, when MBS was still only the deputy crown prince, he had lunch with President Trump and his top national security advisers at the White House, an unusual honor for someone who was not a head of state and not even the next in line to the throne, which at the time was MBS’s cousin, Mohamed bin Nayef.
That White House lunch helped to tee up Trump’s first overseas trip, which was to Saudi Arabia. Traditionally, American presidents make their first overseas trip to close, democratic allies such as Canada, but in a coup for the Saudis, the honor went to them.
Saudis blockade Qatar
Two weeks after Trump’s trip to Riyadh, the Saudis led an Arab blockade of gas-rich Qatar, closing all border crossings and cutting off air and sea travel.
This was a long-term goal of the Saudis who have long found their enormously wealthy, tiny neighbor to be an irritant because it hosts the TV network, Al Jazeera, which is often critical of other Arab states, and because it is sympathetic to Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Trump cheered on the blockade, tweeting, “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding……extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
This was the green light that the Saudis needed to keep up the blockade that continues to this day. In international law, a blockade is an act of war.
When Trump made his celebratory tweet about the blockade, he seemed to have no idea that Qatar housed the largest US base in the Middle East, which was also the most important base in the counter-ISIS fight, a base that is almost entirely paid for by the Qataris, according to a US diplomatic source.
The two members of the Trump cabinet who had had extensive dealings with the Qataris objected to the blockade. Secretary of Defense James Mattis understood the key importance of the base in Qatar for the fight against ISIS, while then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had long experience working with the Qataris when he was the CEO of Exxon. Qatar has the third largest natural gas reserves in the world.
Belatedly understanding the important role that Qatar played in the counter-ISIS fight, Trump later tried to put pressure on the Arab states to lift their blockade, to no avail.
MBS cracks down
A month after Trump’s trip to Riyadh, in a palace coup, MBS forced his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef to step down as Crown Prince. Nayef was long regarded as a safe pair of hands by the CIA because of his aggressive efforts to stamp out al Qaeda in the kingdom when he was the Minister of the Interior.
After removing his cousin as Crown Prince and making himself the heir apparent, MBS also set out to remove all other possible challenges to his total grip on power using a Stalinist playbook, minus the gulags.
In November, some 200 wealthy businessmen and princes were famously jailed in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh — where six months earlier Trump and Kushner had been royally welcomed – and were only released after they had ponied up many billions of dollars that they had purportedly acquired through corruption.
Corruption is an odd charge in Saudi Arabia where there is so little separation between the ruling family and the resources of the state that it is the only country in the world where the ruling family has named an entire country after itself, while MBS thinks nothing of buying expensive gifts for himself, such as a half-billion dollar yacht.
MBS has also imprisoned a range of clerics and civil society activists, some of whom face possible death sentences.
In February, MBS fired much of the leadership of the Saudi military and replaced them with his own picks.
Saudi adventurism abroad
In the past, the invariably geriatric Saudi monarch presided over a conservative foreign policy that was characterized by doing little overseas. MBS by contrast is intervening around the Middle East, not only by leading the blockade of Qatar, but also by starting a war in Yemen. In 2015, MBS began a campaign in Yemen that has helped to precipitate what the UN described earlier this year as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The Trump administration has largely turned a blind eye to the Saudi conduct of its war in Yemen, despite the fact that the Saudi war effort is dependent, in part, on American intelligence and the US aerial refueling of their jet fighters.
In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified to Congress that the Saudis were trying to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen, a move that was intended to avert any congressional action to stop American support for the Saudis in Yemen.
Last week, however, the UN charged the Saudi-led coalition with killing 1,300 children in air strikes in Yemen over the past three years.
In November MBS forced the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen, to announce his resignation when he was visiting Saudi Arabia. MBS believed that Hariri was in the pocket of Iran-backed Hezbollah, which is a major political force in Lebanon. Hariri eventually returned to Lebanon, as prime minister and MBS’s play backfired badly because Hezbollah and Hariri both emerged stronger after this strange episode.
In addition to supporting their war in Yemen, the Trump administration delivered on another key Saudi foreign policy goal on May 8 when Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, a move that was applauded by the Saudis.
Their celebration was short-lived, however, because a week later the United States moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The Saudi royal family styles itself “The Keeper of the Holy Places.” The third holiest site in Islam is the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem where the Prophet Mohammed is supposed to have ascended into heaven. By moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, the Trump administration signaled it was prepared to ignore Muslim sentiments about the special status of Jerusalem. And with that move any hope that Kushner had that MBS would help him broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was likely dead in the water.
Was the bet on MBS worth it?
On Sunday, on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Trump promised “severe punishment” for the Saudis if it is proven that they murdered Jamal Khashoggi as Turkish officials have alleged anonymously to media organizations.
Trump, however, said, “we would be punishing ourselves” by canceling US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a deal which he has frequently trumpeted as amounting to $110 billion.
This is an excellent example of the dangers of believing your own propaganda because, in reality, as a detailed fact check of this claim by the Washington Post has shown, so far only $4 billion of arms sales to the Saudis have been approved by the US State Department since Trump traveled to Riyadh last year. It remains to be seen if additional arms sales will be approved, but for the moment the sales are considerably smaller than was announced when Trump was in Riyadh more than a year ago.
The Trump administration could sanction specific Saudis involved in Khashoggi’s assassination if it is proven that he was assassinated and certainly would be pressured to do by Congress. But Trump is unlikely to do much more given the fact that the Saudis are an important block to Iran’s regional ambitions, an interest shared with the Trump administration.
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The last thing Washington would want is to see the Saudis move closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin. MBS recently visited Moscow for the World Cup. One of Trump’s defenses of the arms sales deal with the Saudis is that if US doesn’t do business with the Saudis, someone else like Russia will.
The Saudis must feel pretty good about what they have extracted from the Trump administration: A free hand to wage war in Yemen with American support; the isolation of their arch nemesis, Iran; acquiescence to their blockade of Qatar, and a warm embrace from the President.
In return, the Trump administration has secured some relatively small-scale arms deals and Kushner is more than likely to emerge empty handed with his much-vaunted and long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
There is a useful Yiddish word for what this all amounts to: bupkis.