The price tag of an audience with Donald Trump is high, and rising. Saudi Arabia has already pledged an estimated $300bn in defence contracts over the next decade and $40bn in infrastructure investment. The final figure, according to some on Wall Street, could yet rise to $1 trillion of investment in the US economy.
By the time he touches down in Riyadh on Friday, Trump will have bagged the biggest arms deal in US history. He will have made good on his promise to make the House of Saud pay – even for rockets it may never use.
If there is a war with Iran, it will be the US that fights it. South Korea, a country much closer to a shooting match with its neighbour, is proving to be a tougher buyer of American anti-missile defence systems. It is balking at paying $1bn for the THAAD system. Not so Riyadh.
The White House was jubilant at the effect this unexpected windfall of Saudi cash could have on jobs back home. The official readout of the meeting that took place last month between Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump said as many as one million jobs could be created directly at home, and millions more in the supply chain.
The question being asked by Saudis who, unlike the 31-year-old prince, cannot afford to buy, on a whim, a Russian billionaire’s yacht or a chain of islands in the Maldives, is this one: “How in God’s name can you shower so much money on the Americans when you are so reluctant to do so on your own people?”
The official unemployment rate is 12 percent, and the real one is much higher. They are struggling to put doctors in hospitals and the kingdom’s largest fund that pays the pensions of public sector workers and the military, the General Retirement Foundation, announced last week its reserves had been depleted.
Which statement of Deputy Economy Minister Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri do most Saudis believe? The one in which he announced the kingdom had reduced its first quarter deficit by more than a half, due to austerity, or the earlier one in which he warned that the kingdom would be bankrupt within four years if the oil price remained at between $40 and $45 a barrel? He was not the only one. The IMF too warned the kingdom faced bankruptcy. Which Saudi does not think more austerity, and a new VAT tax, are around the corner?
Bygone days of desks and wheelchairs
There are two possible reasons why the kingdom is prepared to shower their richer American cousins with more riches.
The first is a personal one. Mohammed bin Salman is paying a king’s ransom, or at least he sincerely hopes it will be. Long gone are the days when gifts of state were modest. One of the exhibits in the museum of the founder of the kingdom, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, in Riyadh is a modest desk that President Franklin D Roosevelt gave him after their first meeting on board a US destroyer. He also got one of the US president’s two wheelchairs. These days a desk or a wheelchair would be an insult, compared to the kickback for an arms contract.
The second is a collective reason. The kingdom got such a shock from an Obama administration which made peace with Iran its main objective, that it never wants to feel exposed to the desert winds again. Saudi Arabia is paying protection money even for arms it is never likely to use.
It would, however, be premature to take Bin Salman’s claims for granted. Even if that is his ambition, does Bin Salman yet speak for his country or even the royal family? He is still one removed from inheriting the throne, and his elder – and some would say wiser – cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, has no intention of surrendering the pole position of crown prince.
Fallout in Yemen
All crown princes lie low and say nothing. Bin Nayef is still in charge of one of three military forces in the kingdom, the powerful interior ministry which controls the borders. It has not been uncommon for foreign visitors invited by Bin Salman to spend awkward moments being questioned at Bin Nayef’s border control, just to send a message. Bin Nayef in private remains quietly confident.
Bin Nayef initially backed the air campaign his younger cousin, the defence minister, launched against the Houthis in Yemen. There are rumours that he does not now. The latest disaster to befall Bin Salman is the fall out that has taken place between the Yemeni president whose legitimacy he is protecting, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Saudi’s chief military ally, the Emirati crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed.
After a shouting match between Hadi and Bin Zayed in February over the control of Aden Airport, Bin Zayed’s Yemeni allies have seceded from the exiled president’s control, splitting the forces attempting to retake Yemen from the Houthis into at least two factions. The politics of Bin Salman are in chaos. He depends on Hadi as the source of legitimacy for his air strikes, but has to prevent him from flying to the liberated south of Yemen.
Bin Zayed, for his part, is not willing to give in. He has always had a bigger prize in Yemen than the Iranian-backed Houthis. Indeed, as I first reported, he first encouraged the Houthis to rise against Hadi until their insurrection got out of control. His target is the eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah movement.
Through the son of the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, bin Zayed is pursuing active negotiations with the Houthis’ main military partner. And through his surrogates Bin Zayed is intent on pursuing his original objectives.
Bin Zayed is nothing if not consistent.
Let us just play a mind game. Let us imagine that, instead of opposing the Arab Spring and the popular uprisings of 2011, Saudi Arabia decided to invest and develop the Arab world. Let us imagine that the House of Saud put $340bn into backing the results of free elections in Egypt, and Libya and Yemen, instead of backing military coups and counter-revolutions.
Where would the House of Saud and the Arab world be now? It would not be plain sailing. The first rulers to come to power after dictatorship would long since have been kicked out, but at least a tradition would have been established to use the ballot box rather than the bullet to do so.
Economies would be well on the way to transition. The Arab world would be full of Western tourists. The beaches of Tunisia and the pyramids of Egypt would not now be empty. There might be a secession movement in Sinai, but there would not be the Islamic State presence there. The jihadis would long since have gone back to their caves in Afghanistan. They would have regarded their mission as a failure.
The House of Saud, the bankers of peaceful change, would now be hailed as heroes. They could have had as many luxury yachts or islands as they wanted. They would not need to pay Trump blood money. How more secure their world would now be if they had already embarked on the only journey left for them: one from absolute to constitutional monarchy.
What is taking place in the region today is a history lesson for slow learners. Trump is looking forward to the welcome he will get in Riyadh, a distraction from the storm clouds gathering at home. But his administration is looking, even to Republican eyes, as one that is spiralling downwards. As it is, 56 Muslim and Arab leaders will gather in Riyadh to listen to Trump giving them a lecture on democracy and preach to them about Islam. What a strange world we live in.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.