Saudis need to be wary of Trump’s intentions



M. Ziauddin

For a number of reasons Pakistan could not have refused Saudi invitation to attend the so-called Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh on Sunday.
First, Pakistan is already a significant part of the Saudi sponsored military alliance of several Muslim countries, though nobody as yet knows the exact number and nobody has an authenticated list of the members of the alliance.
Second, the military alliance which was touted to have been put together to confront the ISIS terrorism, is being commanded by our own former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General (retired) Raheel Sharif who is by far the most experienced general in the entire alliance as far as fighting terrorism is concerned and a successful one too at that as his Zarb-e-Azb campaign had almost completely routed the menace from Pakistan.
Third, millions of Pakistanis earn their livelihood in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. And the remittances that they send back home plays a crucial role in keeping our economy afloat.
Had we refused to join the Summit perhaps the brunt of the retaliatory anger would have fallen on these innocent jobbers and ultimately the consequent adverse impact would have cast our national economy into serious disarray.
Fourth, Pakistan has already declared that come what may it will defend the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia if ever the Kingdom was attacked and would protect the holy sites in Makka Mukarrama and Madina Munawwara with all its military might.
Fifth, Pakistan is highly obliged to Saudi Arabia for supplying us in the past the badly needed crude at concessional rates and that too on deferred payment arrangement which most of the time had remained deferred for good.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly the decision was made for us by our running feud with India which lately has been trying to isolate Pakistan regionally as well as internationally.
New Delhi had successfully sabotaged the SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad late last year by boycotting it and taking along with it Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan.
Next, it snubbed our delegation to Heart of Asia Conference in New Delhi early this year which was being led by PM’s advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz. Most of the speeches delivered on the occasion had castigated Pakistan for what most speakers said Islamabad’s policy of using non-state actors to wage terror war against its neighbors.
In view of the raging rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the best policy on our part should have been to keep out of the Saudi sponsored military alliance, not allow General Raheel Sharif to accept the Saudi offer to lead this military alliance and politely refuse to attend the Sunday summit in Riyadh.
But, one recalls the Saudi and Gulf countries’ animosity that we attracted when our Parliament openly ruled out Pakistan joining the Saudi aggression against Yemen.
Also, in the US eyes we had been reduced meanwhile,to a nobody from being its Non-NATO ally, thanks largely to the Indian lobby in Washington which had barely missed consigning Pakistan into a pariah state allegedly sponsoring terrorism in neighboring countries.
With no friends in Washington and India pressing ahead its campaign to isolate us using its expanding international economic clout it would have been only madness to annoy Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states who out of pique could have sent home our workers, called in all past loans and handed over the command of the military alliance to any retired general from Bangladesh, a country which today is more hostile towards Pakistan than India itself.
So, it was strategically the right decision to not only join the Saudi led military alliance, allow General Sharif to lead the alliance and also accept the invitation to attend the Sunday summit.
That Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not allowed to speak at the forum and was not even offered a meeting with President Trump did appear more like an insult to Pakistan but the summit and its main protagonists—the Saudi King and the US President—actually escaped embarrassment that Nawaz Sharif, if he had been allowed to speak, would have caused by talking more moderately about Iran and by emphasizing extending a hand of friendship towards Tehran rather than pointing accusatory fingers at it.
Meanwhile, the Saudis need to be very careful with their dwindling finances as oil prices do not seem likely to rebound. Trump being a businessman would make all kinds of sales pitches to clinch orders for supplying arms and weapons to Saudi Arabia but is hardly likely to keep the promises he has made in return.
In late April, according to Yoel Guzansky and Sigurd Neubauer ( Why Trump will disappoint Saudis?—May 10, 2017—Foreign Affairs) the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, appointed one of his sons, Prince Khalid bin Salman, as the Kingdom’s new ambassador to the United States. The appointment was part of larger reshuffling at the top of the Saudi government. Khalid’s ascent was a sign of the growing power of his older brother, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi minister of defense.
Khalid’s appointment is also largely seen as an attempt by King Salman to boost ties between the Saudi royal family and U.S. President Donald Trump, who himself has delegated significant foreign policy responsibilities to his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
After years of strained relations with former President Barack Obama, the Saudis appear to be optimistic about the new president. Trump has a well-established record of hostility toward the kingdom’s main rival, Iran, and in particular toward the Obama administration’s Iran deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), which Saudi Arabia only reluctantly came to terms with.
The optimism is evident in the Saudi state media’s coverage: a March meeting between Trump and the deputy crown prince was hailed as “a historic turning point” in the U.S.–Saudi alliance, and after the first phone call between Trump and the King, in January, the Saudi news agency proclaimed that “the leaders see eye to eye on issues on the agenda.” In a second conversation, in April, King Salman praised Trump for his “brave” decision in April to launch missiles against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
Yet despite Saudi optimism, U.S. policy toward the Middle East remains adrift. No coherent national security doctrine has been crafted, and Washington’s principal objectives in the region are unclear. Although Trump surely wants to differentiate himself from his predecessor, it is doubtful that he will significantly tilt U.S. policy in a pro-Riyadh direction, whether by pushing for the removal of Assad or by confronting Iran with anything more than rhetoric to ensure that Tehran complies with the JCPOA.
And other issues may provide further sources of friction: the U.S–Russian détente, which Trump promised to pursue on the campaign trail, could strengthen Assad and therefore Iran; and Trump’s quest to restart the Israeli–Palestinian peace process may require pressuring Riyadh to bring Ramallah to the negotiating table. In short, the Kingdom’s hopes for a full reset are likely to be dashed.
The JCPOA has been a major source of U.S.–Saudi tension over the past few years. Trump railed against it as a presidential candidate, and his running mate Mike Pence promised to “rip up the Iran deal” once they were in office. But at least for now, it appears that Washington has no intention of renegotiating, let alone terminating, the JCPOA.
This is in part because defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is Trump’s top regional priority, and the United States’ anti-ISIS efforts still depend on the support of Iraq’s various Shiite militias, many of which are closely linked to Iran. Washington is therefore limited in how much it can push Tehran without endangering its campaign against ISIS.Instead of abandoning the deal, it now appears that Trump will seek to meticulously enforce it while continuing to oppose Iran’s activities in the broader region—instead of tearing the deal up.