by Ghassan Kadi
A lot has been said and speculated on about the “real” objectives of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Seasoned veteran British journalist/analyst and Middle East expert Robert Fisk sees it as an attempt to create a Sunni-style NATO to curb the Iranian expansion, and his speculation is on the money, but in realistic terms, what can this visit and its “aftermath” achieve?
Despite the slump on crude oil prices over the last 2-3 years, the Saudis are not short on cash, despite the huge and growing deficit they are running. Their reserve cash is estimated to be a whopping three quarters of a trillion American dollars, and the unit “trillion” has been chosen here because it is the millions of the 21st Century and billions have become too small to consider.
That said, the Saudis have recently pledged nearly a third of their stash on “investments” with the USA. The first allotment came in the form of an undertaking to invest over 100 billion dollars in the American housing sector less than a fortnight ago, and upon Trump’s historic Riyadh visit, the Saudis signed an excess of 100 billion dollar arms deal contract. This is a total of an excess of 200 billion American dollars to be injected into the American economy. But on the scale of trillions again, this huge figure amounts to only a mere 1% of America’s staggering official 20 trillion dollar debt.
A drop in the ocean perhaps if taken into the context of the American economy and debt, but there is little doubt that this Saudi money will create jobs in the USA, and if President Trump is still sticking by the promise of creating jobs, he’s on the money with this one too.
Thus far, and nearly four months after his inauguration, it can safely be said that the most predictable thing about President Trump thus far has been his unpredictability. But with all of his eccentricities and swings, what was it that made him swing in favour of Al-Saud? It may not be very difficult to solve this puzzle if we look at the chain of events.
Surely, the USA has a lot of strategic interests in the area, and these interests are multi-faceted. Among other things, the USA wants to protect the long-term wellbeing of Israel, curb the influence of Russia and Iran in the region, have a share in the decision making of the “War on Syria”, and last be not least, keep a tight control on Saudi oil and cash wealth.
One of Trump’s election promises was to get America’s allies to pay their way, and he was very vocal about the Saudis saying on a number of occasions that protecting Saudi Arabia was costing the USA more than it should be paying for. Those subtle “threats” sent a wave of shivers down the spines of Saudi royals, especially that they were already in deep trouble financially and also bogged down in a protracted and highly expensive war in Yemen that seems unwinnable.
Given that the Saudis believed that former President Obama has let them down and did not invade Syria after the alleged East Ghouta chemical attack of August 2013, the unknown and rather unstable Trump looked like a wild card and they braced for the worst.
Knowing that they are in deep trouble and need America more than ever, feeling extremely nervous about the Iran nuclear deal, the Saudis realized that the only option they have with Trump was to appease him; “but how?”, they wondered. But when they put two and two together, and listened to Trump’s statements about Saudi Arabia, the Saudis realized that they can and will appease him with money; a quarter of a trillion dollars and counting.
Taking the big fat cheque book out is not a modus operandi that is alien to the Saudi psyche, because the Saudis have learned to solve their problems with money. And now, they believe that they are forging a new era of military and strategic alliance with the United States, and paying for this privilege with hard cash.
What they do not know is that whilst they were dreaming big, thinking that they are on the verge of becoming a regional superpower to be reckoned with signing an alliance with America, Donald Trump was signing a business deal, a sales contract; nothing more and nothing less.
The way Trump sees this is a win-win situation. If the Saudis do manage to get the upper military hand and curb the Iranians, he would have reached this zenith not only without having to fight Iran, but also whilst being paid for it. On the other hand, if the Saudis take a gamble to go to war with Iran and lose, he would have received his quarter trillion in advance. So for Saudi Arabia to win or lose, the deal makes America a quarter of a trillion dollar richer; or rather a quarter of a trillion less in debt.
In reality however, what are the odds of Saudi Arabia winning an open war with Iran? Or will this war eventuate in the first place? Back to this question later on.
In a part of the world that is highly volatile, supplying a huge arsenal of highly lethal weapons to a regime that is known for its atrocities, war crimes, inciting regional tension and creating conflict is pouring oil on an already raging fire. Trump’s arms deal with the Saudis probably marks one of the lowest points in America’s history. If anything, after the historic American-Iranian nuclear deal, America was in a position to play the role of an arbitrator and try to get the Saudis and the Iranians to reconcile; coerce them if needed. Instead, Trump turned his attack on Jihadi terrorism by supplying more support to the core and centre of terrorism (Saudi Arabia) and signed a huge arms deal that will only lead to further and much deadlier escalations.
With seemingly very powerful Sunni/Shiite animosities resurfacing after many centuries of dormancy, the pro-American axis happens to be predominantly Sunni and the pro-Russian resistance axis is seen to be Shiite; though it is not as such in reality. That said, the strongest Sunni army in the region is undoubtedly Turkey’s, and Turkey could potentially play a key role in bolstering Fisk’s Sunni-”NATO”. However, the Kurdish issue is a bigger threat to Turkey than Iran has ever been, and Turkey will walk away from its Sunni brothers and “NATO” allies if they were to support Kurdish separatists and arm them; and the irony is that they are.
Without Turkey, a Sunni-”NATO” will be a toothless tiger, unless perhaps it receives enough support from Israel; a support America will not be prepared to offer. But apart from some possible airstrikes and intelligence sharing, how much support will Israel give if any at all? And how much will Putin will be able to weigh in with his clout to keep Netanyahu’s nose out of it? Last but not least, how will the leaders of a so-called Sunni-”NATO” be able to “sell” the idea of getting into an alliance with Israel with its Sunni populace base?
There is little doubt that the Saudis now feel that Trump has given them a carte blanche to attack Iran, and if they swallow the bait fully, they may be foolish enough to take the gamble. But first, they have to finish off Yemen, and then look back and think how they miscalculated when they planned the so-called “Operation Decisive Storm”, and which was meant to be a swift and successful operation. More than two years later, victory seems further than ever predicted all the while the Yemenis have been improving their missile manufacturing capabilities and have been able to hit targets in the capital Riyadh.
Whilst the Saudis were begging the Americans to sell them more advanced weapons to win the war in Yemen, the Yemenis were developing their own. But given that Saudis believe that all problems can be solved provided one is prepared to spend as much as needed, the bottom line for them will always be, “how much?”
The Saudis will not only have to re-evaluate the short-sighted military gamble they took in Yemen, but also the financial one. No one knows for certain what has thus far been the dollar cost that the Saudis had to cough up, but it is in the tens of billions of dollars. With a country that is currently running a near 90 billion dollar budget deficit and diminishing returns, to gamble one third of the national savings on a new war aimed at Iran is tantamount to both, military and financial suicide.
If a war against Iran is at all winnable by the Saudis, what will be the dollar cost?
If the budget ceiling was broken, just like that of Operation Decisive Storm, and if the Saudis realize that the over 100 billion odd dollars they “invested” to buy state-of-the-art weaponry from the USA was not enough, by how much will they be prepared to lift the cost ceiling? They will only need to break the ceiling 3-4 fold before they actually run out of cash reserves. Such a budget overblow is not unusual in wars, and Yemen and Syria are living proof for the Saudis to learn from; if they are capable of learning.
A war against Iran will perhaps be Al-Saud’s final gamble option, but unless the Saudi royals change their rhetoric and seek reconciliation with their Shiite neighbours, this war could well be Al-Saud’s only gamble option.
But the bottom line to any military action is military pragmatism. How can the Saudis think that they can invade and subdue Iran when they haven’t been able to subdue a starved and besieged Yemen? In the unlikely event that they will be able to serve Iran with a swift “shock-and-awe” strike and achieve prompt victory, what will add to their woes is Iran’s ability to close the Strait of Hormuz and to also hit oil production areas and ports. In simple terms, the Saudi war on Yemen is expensive enough, but a war with Iran will be much more expensive, and one that will cut off Saudi life-line; its income.
Do the Saudis believe that expensive imported hardware is going to give the military edge they need? “Knowing” Trump, he will likely wait till the Saudis are down on their knees begging and then extort them by hiking the price of an elusive “super weapon”, perhaps even an A-Bomb, that will tip the war in Saudi favour. But “knowing” the Saudis and Iranians, if the Saudis attack and start an all-out war on Iran, then this may indeed earn the name of decisive storm, but not on Saudi terms. Will Iran virtually walk into Saudi Arabia? Such a scenario cannot be overruled. More than likely however, America will continue to feed the fire for as long as the Saudi cow (female camel in this instance) can be milked and for as long as there is money to be had. For as long as the infamous Al-Saud are on the throne, the kingdom will continue to be run by the same old rules of arrogance that will not stop until that evil legacy is down and vanquished.