Guest Post by Mohsen Solhdoost
American foreign policy conventional wisdom has been generally defined by either liberal interventionists, endeavouring to spread American influence by democratization, or neoconservatives, using force across the globe since the days of Woodrow Wilson. Yet, neither of these rubrics seem to fully fit President Trump’s foreign policy that is predominantly shaped by nepotism and his family members’ financial entanglements in various countries. President Trump’s assigning people with zero foreign policy experience to key positions in his foreign policy cabinet has dangerously increased the likelihood of catastrophic consequences. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and jack-of-all-trades, is perhaps the most egregious of President Trump’s picks. The dilettante’s outsized role in his father-in-law’s matters of foreign policy has raised concerns among political experts particularly for his close ties with Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
MbS, also known for his inexperience in politics, has been entrusted with a wealth of responsibilities for domestic issues as well as foreign affairs of the Kingdom. Within two months of being appointed as the Defense Minister, MbS architected the war in Yemen in 2015. The Saudi media framed the invasion of Yemen as a battle against Iranian Shiite regional dominance. Further, the impulsive MbS vowed to take the fight to Iran. Once President Trump took office in 2017, his inner circle, particularly Jared Kushner, regarded Saudi Arabia as “a vital component” of the White House Middle East strategy. Therefore, President Trump, relentlessly undoing former President Obama, lifted the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia in March 2017. Within a week, a meeting was set between President Trump, his aides and MbS in Washington. The two sides realized they have the mutual goal of erasing Barack Obama’s legacy in the Middle East, particularly with regards to Iran’s nuclear deal. Such exchange of shared ideas led to MbS starting to exploit President Trump’s preternatural allergy to Obama’s achievements in order to step up Saudi efforts towards revitalizing the Sunni Arab challenge to Iranian influence in the Middle East. Pretending to fight state-sponsored terrorism, MbS managed to enforce a Saudi-led blockade on Qatar, a Persian Gulf state with natural economic ties with Iran. President Trump immediately tweeted support for the Saudi-led campaign against Qatar and expressed his appreciation for the so-called Saudi counter-terrorism policy.
The American president’s full-throated support for Saudi Arabia under the reigns of the Crown Prince has been extended beyond twitter. Jared Kushner, the Senior Advisor to the US President, has paid three visits to the Kingdom not just to reinforce his camaraderie with MbS. Being at the forefront of the administration’s efforts in the Middle East, Kushner’s frequent contacts with MbS is considered as a tacit approval from the White House for the Saudi hardline policies in the region. Such posturing has allowed MbS’s worst instincts play out in the region.
As such, MbS has continued to adventure into intensifying Saudi confrontation with the Shiite Iran by forcing the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, to step down while on a visit to the Kingdom in early November 2017. The forced resignation of the Lebanese PM was used to blame Iran and the Iran-backed Hezbollah for meddling in the Lebanese politics. If the Saudi Crown Prince were seeking a pretext to move towards a more direct confrontation with Iran, the Houthis’ missile attack provided it. The same day that the Lebanese Prime Minister resigned, Shiite Houthis in Yemen fired a ballistic missile towards Riyadh in response to the continued Saudi-led bombing campaign of Yemenis since 2015. Emboldened by President Trump’s expression of “confidence” in the Saudi Crown Prince, MbS did not hesitate to accuse Iran of “direct military aggression” by allegedly supporting Houthis in Yemen.
Courtesy of an upgrade in his relations with Washington via Jared Kushner, the upstart Saudi Crown Prince has dangerously raised the specters of another interstate war in the Middle East. Although the region is not new to such high degrees of volatility, the new path pursued by MbS is throwing caution into the winds for a few reasons. First, previous confrontations between regional powers have been mostly carried out through proxies for the past three decades. Yet, MbS is defiantly hell-bent on pushing for a direct aggression. Second, unlike previous conflicts, which could be fairly defined by power competition between the regional hegemons, the Saudis’ recent behavior is putting the Middle East on a collision course between Sunni and Shiite forces across the region. Third, a US-Saudi alliance that is lubricated and driven by family business interests can be far more consequential than previous cases of state-related interests in oil and arms deals. Thus, with MbS ratcheting up verbal tensions with Iran by calling the Iranian Supreme Leader, “the new Hitler of the Middle East”, the question is: to what extent would President Trump sacrifice US credibility for his family investments in the Middle East? And, would President Trump’s son-in-law’s business interests enmeshed with the Saudi Crown Prince’s thirst for power ultimately lead to an intractable war with Iran?
Mohsen Solhdoost is a PhD candidate at the school of Politics and International Studies, University of Queensland, Australia. He works currently on external support to non-state armed groups. He uses National Role Conceptions as an approach to Foreign Policy Analysis to explain why states engage in supporting non-state entities. He is particularly focusing on U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel.