Trump’s Complicated History with Saudi Arabia Re-Emerges Following Recent Oilfield Attacks
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
Trump, as with many of his relationships, has a complicated history when it comes to Saudia Arabia. Earlier in his career as a businessman, he seemed to envy its wealth, even criticizing it rudely. Later, when the Saudis helped him financially, they could do no wrong. As President, Trump likes them for the same reason, the money they spend in his hotels and, additionally, the business they give the U.S., which also helps in securing his voter base.
Trump’s early, rough beginnings with Saudi Arabia
Immediately following the attack on the Saudi oil fields on the weekend of September 14, Trump blamed Iran and threatened a retaliatory, “locked and loaded” strike. But then, he demurred on his blame game, indicating he was awaiting consultative advice from the Kingdom on how to proceed. According to the New York Magazine, “It is rather odd that the legendarily isolationist president would put American military power at the disposal of a foreign power.”
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have had a historic alliance dating to 1945, which evolved into a complex relationship between the oil-rich Kingdom and the once oil-needy U.S. The complexity, while not simply due to oil, has become even more enmeshed. Now the U.S is a net exporter of oil, so what was once a vital need has, under Trump, morphed into a pursuit of Saudi money.
But Trump was not always pro-Saudi. So long as he was not gaining from the Saudis, he was critical of their ostentatious wealth. Before he began his quest for national political fame, he railed against them, saying, also according to New York Magazine, “they were a bunch of leeches getting rich off American generosity: Saudi Arabia should fight their own wars, which they won’t, or pay us an absolute fortune to protect them and their great wealth-$ trillion!”
His change of heart now that Saudi money’s coming his way
Now Trump is of another mind about Saudi Arabia—it can do no wrong. In Trump’s thinking, now we owe Saudi, because they buy lots of U.S. weapons, thus generating more manufacturing, jobs, income and, presumably, votes from his political base. He claims in his typically exaggerated manner, that a million and a half jobs come from the U.S. relationship with Saudi. In return, the Saudis get advanced high technology arms for their payments in hard cash. Again quoting Trump from New York Magazine, “The Saudis have been purchasing American weapons — with cash — for decades.” That’s the nature of the relationship.
It’s not clear why Trump has decided to stop seeing U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia as a favor to the Saudis and start seeing Saudis as doing favors for the U.S. The rationale for Trump’s reversal on “who’s serving who” is based on his personal cash windfall from the Saudis over the past several decades. Saudis are spending large amounts of cash at his Washington and New York hotels, as well as his resort in Scotland. According to CBS reports, as early as 1991, when Trump was on the verge of bankruptcy due to his underwater Atlantic City properties, a wealthy Saudi sheik bought his yacht at well below market value. A few years later, the same sheik along with co-investors, bought his unprofitable New York Plaza Hotel. In 2001, Trump sold the Kingdom an entire floor of Trump World Tower in New York City.
Issues over the Trump-Saudi relationship–especially with the Crown Prince
Saudi payments to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. have raised the suspicion of the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia, who have sued over so-called “emoluments” or gifts to the President from foreign governments. The Kingdom’s links to Trump have been under ever-closer review since the killing of Saudi journalist and critic, Jamal Khashoggi. While the Kingdom was implicated in Khashoggi’s disappearance and probable murder, Trump brushed off any implication for the U.S. Furthermore, according to a CBS interview, Trump reported he didn’t “want to scuttle a lucrative arms deal with the kingdom and noted that Khashoggi is a U.S. resident, not a citizen.” Had the Saudi refugee reporter been a citizen, it would have made him more worthy to Trump.
The CIA, however, according to the Washington Post, had concluded that the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS), ordered the murder of Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey. Trump, always seeming to take the side of foreign autocrats, called the CIA report “premature.” The President refused openly to implicate MBS, since he had already put so much stock in the Crown Prince, including as a check on Iranian power and as a continued source of world petroleum. Another link in the chain to Saudi Arabia is Trump son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, who has a close relationship with MBS and is also supposedly saddled with the White House Middle East “peace strategy.”
In effect, as Trump has made clear, the Saudi’s can do no wrong. That’s one reason he sent Secretary of State Pompeo to pay homage to the Saudis following the attack on the Saudi oilfields. As we questioned at the beginning of this piece, why should a President who doesn’t care much about other countries, with the exception of those headed by autocrats, give such precedence to Saudi in the use of our precious military resources?
“Trump’s Bizarre Argument for Defending Saudi Arabia, Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine, 9/17/19
“The president’s links to Saudi billionaires and princes go back years and appear to have only deepened,” CBS, 10/15/18
“Donald Trump made millions from Saudi Arabia but trashes Hillary Clinton for Saudi donations to Clinton Foundation,” Stephen Rex Brown, New York Daily News, 9/4/16
“Trump just can’t quit MBS,” Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, 11/19/18
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.