Rarely has an American administration invested such hope in – or kow-towed so nakedly to – a Middle Eastern state in the manner which Donald Trump’s has done since taking office last January.
The president’s entire strategy for the region appears to have been shaped by a belief that Saudi Arabia could help him achieve multiple goals – not least a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
That hope – already much diminished – now appears to lie in tatters following the Saudis’ brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their Istanbul consulate earlier this month. As Leon Panetta, who served in senior roles in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, suggested: “I have a sense that they put all of their chips on the hope that the Saudis would be able to help the United States, not only in dealing with the challenges of terrorism, but also in dealing with peace in the Middle East.”
Trump’s decision to bet the house on the Saudis was shaped by the close relationship which his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, established with the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin-Salman (pictured with the president).
Despite his lack of any diplomatic or governmental experience, Trump placed Kushner in charge of his bid to secure what he has repeatedly termed the “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians. Kushner is said to have presented Prince Mohammed to Trump as a reformist and a moderniser, ready to make big changes at home and abroad.
There was, indeed, some evidence to back such a contention – cinemas have reopened and the ban on women driving cars lifted – but, as The Economist magazine argued last week, “Prince Mohammed never promised to make Saudi Arabia a liberal democracy. He offered his subjects a deal: accept my rule in exchange for social liberalisation and economic modernisation.”
Nor was the notion of securing Saudi buy-in for a renewed push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians altogether far-fetched. The US effort was based on the so-called “outside-in” approach – drawing on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative to secure an agreement between Israel and moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to break the log-jam in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
This approach has been encouraged by two Arab states with friendly relations with Israel – Egypt and Jordan – and appeared more realistic given Israel and the Sunni Arab states’ shared antipathy toward, and fear of, Iranian expansionism. In Prince Mohammed and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed, some observers also saw a younger generation of Arab leaders who might be willing to cut an historic deal with Israel.
The long-awaited Trump peace plan is thus said to call for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to invest heavily in reconstruction and redevelopment projects in Gaza and the West Bank. At the same time, Israel will be looking for its security concerns to be part of any deal, with moves towards Palestinian statehood tied to a broader agreement which normalises relations between the Jewish state and those Arab nations – such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – which have refused to recognise its existence for the past seven decades.
There were tentative signs that such an approach might bear fruit. Assuming the role of broker, last year, Prince Mohammed is believed to have twice summoned the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to Riyadh in order to brief him on the emerging American proposals, hear his concerns, and nudge him towards concessions.
In March Israeli and Saudi officials reportedly held a series of secret meetings in Egypt. In the same month, Saudi Arabia granted Air India permission to fly over its territory on its new routes to and from Tel Aviv. This step effectively ended a 70-year ban on flights to Israel flying over Saudi Arabia. Two months later, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said his country’s relations with the Arab world were “improving beyond imagination” and “this will ultimately help achieve peace with our Palestinian neighbours”. The following month, Prince Mohammed declared in a magazine interview that both Israelis and Palestinians “have the right to their own land”.
Indeed, only last week it was reported that the IDF chief of staff, Lt Gen Gadi Eisenkot, had held discussions on regional issues – especially Iran – with his Saudi counterpart when the two met at a Washington DC counterterrorism conference.
However, these seemingly positive developments have been blown off course by both Trump and the Saudis. The president’s decision last December to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and then to move the US Embassy there in May infuriated Abbas. The Palestinian leader responded by suspending contacts with the US and declaring that it no longer sees the Americans as honest brokers who can oversee the process. While Trump’s initial declaration was more nuanced than some suggested at the time – his speech explicitly stated that the US was “not taking a position [on] any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested boundaries” – the president’s later claim that he had “taken Jerusalem off the table” and his subsequent swingeing cuts in aid to the Palestinians have simply stoked Abbas’ anger.
It has, moreover, given the unpopular Palestinian president a convenient get-out, allowing him to avoid having to make the unpalatable choice of giving domestically tricky concessions or rejecting a US plan which the Israelis accepted.
By contrast, the muted response in moderate Arab capitals to the US moves last December indicated a desire to let Trump’s gameplan play out further; a strategy perhaps encouraged by the president’s repeated assurance that Israel would “pay a price” for the recognition of Jerusalem and hints that it was also intended to soften up Israeli hardliners for future concessions to the Palestinians which the Americans were preparing to demand.
If this was the US plan, it foundered in July when Prince Mohammed’s father, Saudi King Salman, weighed in firmly in support of an uncompromising Palestinian line. “We will not abandon you,” the King is reported to have told Abbas. “We accept what you accept and we reject what you reject.” His words apparently came shortly after his son had hosted Kushner and the US special envoy, Jason Greenblatt, to discuss the peace process. In particular, Salman is said to have backed Abbas on the status of Jerusalem and the need for Israel to accept a Palestinian “right to return”. This would allow not simply Palestinian refugees displaced in 1947 and 1948, but also their descendants – a figure which is believed to run to several million – to return to Israel, thus ending its Jewish majority. Israel has indicated it would accept a nominal number of refugees and pay some compensation, but believes the bulk of refugees and their descendants should be accommodated by a new Palestinian state.
The Saudi stance is said to have left Kushner “startled and angry” and led to a further reworking of Trump’s much-delayed plan. A potential payback was evident last weekend when Abbas issued a strong statement expressing “full confidence” in Saudi Arabia in general and Prince Mohammed in particular. The US is also reliant on the Saudis for attaining its other priorities in the region. Saudi cash has been used to stabilise war-torn parts of Iraq and Syria which have been liberated from Islamic State; a withdrawal of that funding may allow Iran and its proxies to gain a greater foothold. Moreover, the US is also banking on the Saudis to help prevent the price of oil rising when it imposes sanctions on Iranian oil next month.
Crucially, the murder of Khashoggi lays bear what has long been clear: that Prince Mohammed is a shaky foundation on which to build a plan to resolve the world’s longest-running conflict. Prior to him becoming crown prince last June, US intelligence officials are believed to have assessed that Prince Mohammed was, according to the Washington Post, “a naive, inexperienced and ambitious upstart who was not prepared for a position of great power”. It is not difficult to see how the equally naive and inexperienced Kushner might have dismissed such warnings were he made aware of them.
Prince Mohammed’s actions bear out that assessment: he has embroiled the Saudis in a bloody war in Yemen, launched an unsuccessful blockade of Qatar, and grossly overreacted to human rights criticisms of the kingdom by the Canadian foreign minister (another recent occasion on which Abbas rallied to the Saudis’ side). The Khashoggi murder thus fits with a pattern of reckless and thuggish behaviour, and an unwillingness to countenance dissent.
However the Saudis attempt to shift the blame, Prince Mohammed appears greatly weakened. Criticism of him in Washington – the Saudis’ most important ally – spans the partisan divide. Trump apologist Lindsey Graham, an influential South Carolina senator, has described him as a “wreaking ball” and threatened sanctions. Democrat senator Chris Murphy has said the Khashoggi murder “should trigger a fundamental review of the nature of the United States’ alliance with the Saudis”.
As Dan Shapiro, President Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, commented, Khashoggi’s death “definitely complicates [the administration’s] plans to release their proposal, if indeed they have one”.
Prince Mohammed will also now lack the clout to “break taboos” and encourage the Palestinians to make unpopular concessions. The crown prince’s credibility has been severely undermined, Shapiro argued. “The Saudi partner needs to be predictable, needs to be reliable, needs to be responsible. What this incident tells us is that that’s not the Saudi partner we have right now.”