By now, after two-and-a-half years in office, it’s obvious that President Trump’s relations with Riyadh are dictating his foreign policy, even at the expense of further enraging a Democratic-controlled Congress intent on removing him from office.
Trump’s last pro-Saudi move came on Friday week the fire-brand president declared a national emergency because of tensions with Iran and swept aside objections from lawmakers to complete the sale of over $8 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan. The Trump administration informed congressional committees that it would push ahead with 22 military sales to the three Middle Eastern countries, drawing rebuke from both sides of the aisle for circumventing a long-standing precedent for congressional review of major military weapons sales.
Not only has the move infuriated Congress over what they see as presidential abuse of power, but it comes as Congress grows increasingly agitated over human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has been implicated in the controversial killing of Saudi dissident journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October. The paper trail for the crime was traced all the way back to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Even then, Trump stood by his Saudi allies and the Royal family though it created a considerable backlash from both Democrats and Republicans and even internationally.
The Trump administration is also being called on the carpet for continued U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military actions in neighboring Yemen which has resulted in a large number of civilian casualties. The Royal family has also strengthened its grip domestically with a top-down authoritative rule over any hint of dissent. Last month, Saudi Arabia put to death 37 so-called terrorists, most of them Saudi citizens, for what they said were terror-related crimes. CNN reported that one was even crucified - a troubling prospect from Western and U.S. lawmakers that tie any kind of political and military support to a country’s human rights record.
All of these developments have led to Congressional angst over Saudi Arabia and the president’s incessant support for the kingdom. However, Trump’s playbook sees Saudi Arabia not only as a key ally in the Middle East but as internal in helping keep global oil prices in check. Perhaps more importantly, Riyadh is key in Trump’s policy to drive Iran to its knees economically and force it to the bargaining table over its nuclear, ballistic missile and Middle Eastern hegemony purists. Yet, looking at the past 40-year record from Iran, it’s a gambit that could backfire and lead to a U.S.-Saudi military confrontation with Iran - a prospect that would roil global oil markets and hit economic growth at the same time it’s slowing due to ongoing U.S.-China trade tensions.
Moreover, Trump’s move on Friday effectively snubbed Congress which has recently blocked military arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said “President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove ... There is no new ‘emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen and doing so only perpetuates the humanitarian crisis there.”
So great is the angst in Congress over Trumps’ Saudi weapons sales move that ardent Trump supporter Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham even criticized it. "I’ve got a real problem with going back to doing business as usual with Saudi Arabia," Graham said on "Fox News Sunday."
"Jordan is a great ally. The [United Arab Emirates] has been problematic in Yemen but are a good ally. Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, but [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] was, in my opinion, involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and he’s done a lot of other disruptive things, so I don’t support the arms sales now," he continued.
Trump’s end game (peace and oil)
Yet, amid criticism from both sides of the aisle, Trump’s end game may at the end of the day justify its means. The president sees Iran as a major threat to not only Middle Eastern security but its nuclear development is a systemic global threat. Trump sees a strong Saudi Arabia, even with its obvious and multiple imperfections and problems, as a counterweight in the region. Without a strong Saudi Arabia, or even worse if there was regime change in the kingdom, the prospect for peace in the Middle East and the impact on global oil markets would be unprecedented in its damage. Trump may be unorthodox in how he governs, and no doubt creates considerable and seemingly never-ending blunders, but his end game should be kept in mind by both U.S. lawmakers and a watching global audience.