Behind the veneer

By Ayaz Ahmed

In 1945, the US State Department observed that: “the resources of the Middle East are a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in the world history”.

Although all American presidents before Donald Trump attached paramount importance to the oil-rich Arab monarchies in the Middle East, they always prioritised the security of Israel over Arab countries in the strategically important region. President Trump’s selection of Saudi Arabia for his maiden visit, therefore, makes it patently clear that he wishes to play a diplomatic masterstroke to maximise American strategic and economic designs in the Middle East.

Since 1931, Saudi Arabia has uninterruptedly continued to play a central role in fostering the American economic boom and military preponderance by exporting substantial oil and purchasing expensive weaponry from the US. President Trump’s visit can be termed historic in Saudi-American relations because both Iran and Russia – the arch rivals of Saudi Arabia and the US, respectively – are heavily engaged in increasing their military footprints in the militancy-hit Middle East.

Bilateral ties between Saudi Arabia and the US reached their nadir when Obama continued to drag his feet in terms of militarily intervening in the festering Syrian civil war. Moreover, the portentous Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration affected the enduring economic and strategic relations between Washington and Riyadh. The House of Saud remained slightly apprehensive that Uncle Sam would once again make Iran the regional police to cushion its core commercial and security objectives in the region.

Since formally taking over the Oval Office on January 20, 2017, the Trump administration has been grappling with mounting political controversy over the alleged Russian meddling in the presidential election and Trump’s disclosure of highly classified information about Daesh to Russia. The FBI has extended its investigation to an incumbent senior White House officer. Former FBI director James Comey has also taken an audacious step to publicly testify about the probe.

If the FBI succeeds in proving the aforementioned allegations, the firebrand president is most likely to come under increasing public pressure to step down –the same way as Richard Nixon did over the infamous Watergate scandal in August 1974. The Democrats and other anti-Trump lobbies have cashed in on the unfolding situation to pit the public opinion against the controversy-ridden Trump administration.

Under such circumstances, it becomes pertinent for a leader to explore those available opportunities that could lower the rising political temperature and divert public opinion against him. However, given the efficacy of American investigative institutions and the democratic maturity of the people, it would be quite difficult for Trump to escape from the political whirlwind against him.

During his visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump signed a weapons deal worth nearly $110 billion with the country. The deal will be worth $350 billion over 10 years. He also concluded an accord with Bahrain to send F-16 fighters worth $5 billion. Intriguingly, Saudi Arabia signed a non-binding agreement committing $20 billion to upgrade the existing infrastructure in the US.

Such massive investments will ostensibly create thousands of jobs and help Trump gain the overwhelming backing of powerful arms lobbies in the US. This will also prove effective in shifting attention from the aftershock of Trump’s decision to sack James Comey.

The Pentagon is concerned over the increasing clout of Russia and Iran in the Middle East. Iran’s continued supply of arms and monetary assistance have made Hezbollah so potent that it now poses a potential security threat to Israel – the US protege in the Middle East. Moreover, Iran’s military support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the tottering Assad regime has immensely helped Tehran project its hard power across the region. It goes without saying that an assertive Iran will challenge both Saudi and Israeli dominance in the oil-rich Middle East.

The Trump administration has lately realised that its missile attacks against the Assad regime in Syria have largely proved inadequate in terms of placating America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. After the dismal failure of the US to win the costly and deadly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington now does not wish to burn its finger by militarily intervening in Syria and Yemen. Nor does the US want to get itself entangled in a full-blown war against Iran in the Persian Gulf.

The Pentagon has drastically changed its policy of ‘regime change’ in the Middle East. It has decided to sell sophisticated weaponry to Saudi Arabia so that the oil-rich kingdom can battle Iranian-funded rebels and regimes in the region. Such a dramatic change in US policy is likely to prove as a masterstroke. It will not only help Washington amass billions of dollars in arms sales but will also be effective in circumventing Iran’s assertiveness in the region.

However, the supply of modern weaponry to Saudi Arabia at an alarming rate will probably bring about a ‘security dilemma’ in the region, and instigate Iran to purchase advanced arms and ammunitions from Russia. This will further complicate the ongoing muscle-flexing and proxy wars between Tehran and Riyadh. What should be kept in mind is that instability in the Middle East is in the greater interests of both Russia and the US because it creates mushrooming markets for the arms industry in both countries.

Another important part of Trump’s visit was to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. According to The New York Times, no previous US president has come to Israel this early in his tenure.

President Trump needs Israel’s support to escape from the FBI’s investigative dragnet against his government. The bureau is conducting an extensive investigation into the Trump administration’s alleged disclosure to Russia of the presence of a Jewish informer working with Daesh to report on the militant outfit’s predetermined attacks. If Israel agrees to influence the FBI’s investigation through its lobbies, Tel Aviv will do so on the condition that the Trump administration will snap back some crushing sanctions on Iran.

Although Trump lectured the Muslim world on how to eliminate terrorism and militancy, his visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel is likely to further stoke sectarianism and militancy in the region. As mentioned above, arms-exporting countries, such as the US, never aspire for political stability in a region where they export their weaponry.

It is time the divided Muslim countries in the Middle East grasped Uncle Sam’s ‘divide and arm’ policy which seeks to further its neo-imperialistic designs in the region. While Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to compete for religious leadership and political influence across the Middle East, there will be hardly any prospect for peace in the region.

The writer edits The Asia Watch.

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