While US President Donald Trump is keen to portray his landmark visit to Saudi Arabia – the first stop on his maiden trip abroad – as a major success both politically and economically, there are signs that he is instead trying to revitalise the US economy at the expense of the Middle East. For many in the Arab world, and particularly in terms of US-Arab relations, this will be a familiar pattern of extortion.
Trump lauded a huge package of deals agreed between Washington and Riyadh totaling an enormous $380 billion, with $110 billion of that solely on the arms industry which is by itself projected to expand to some $350 billion over the next decade. That is a gargantuan Arab investment in the American economy and, in exchange, Trump is expected to help Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab monarchies to survive against an ever-expanding circle of Shia Iranian influence.
But the US focus on sending billions in weapons to the region comes as Trump plans to cut economic and humanitarian aid to people in the war-ravaged region – the victims of warfare. It is a shortsighted strategy, but one in keeping with his “America First” campaign pledges.
Buying America’s protection
Since the US under President George W. Bush invaded Iraq illegally and under false pretexts in 2003, no other Arab power has been able to replace it as a check against Iranian hegemonic ambitions. Baghdad itself, now a shattered semblance of its former self, has come under Iran’s sway, and is not in any position to protect the Arabian Gulf as it did during the Iran-Iraq War.
Rather than use their vast wealth derived from the energy sector to invest in their own self-dependency, the wealthy Arab regimes have decided to use that money to instead curry favour with the US, and buy the protection of the world’s most powerful military force. In essence, Saudi Arabia under King Salman is making a return to the policies of King Fahad.
While King Faisal attempted to chart his own course and independent foreign policy by famously turning off the oil taps and triggered a global oil crisis to protest US support for Israel in the 1973 war, Fahad instead purchased American protection against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the run up to the Gulf War in 1990.
The crucial difference between Faisal and Fahad, however, is that the former was assassinated not long after he showed independent thought while the latter died of old age. One can never tell to what extent that reality influenced Salman’s recent decision to throw his lot in entirely with Trump, but the similarities in foreign policy between the two brothers Salman and Fahad are nevertheless striking in this regard.
US slashes Middle East aid
As Trump returns ready to show the American people that his administration is not merely a litany of scandals, but also a triumphant expression of the deal making he professes to master, the Middle East will have to contend with another US cost-cutting measure.
Although one of the pillars of his trip to Riyadh was his speech that called on Arabs and Muslims to “drive out” the religious fanatics from within their own communities, the US is now also quietly cutting funding and foreign aid to the least financially able Arab countries, including its allies in the fight against ISIS extremists.
According to a Congressional Budget Justification paper released on Tuesday, overall assistance to Middle Eastern countries will be slashed by almost $850 million. That includes economic and development aid for countries such as Jordan, Tunisia and Yemen – some of the poorest countries in the Arab world, and also some of those worst afflicted by terrorism and political violence.
Making America great, or losing influence?
Apparently, then, Trump really is talking the talk when he intends to live up to his election campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” and his promise to put “America First”. By slashing aid to foreign countries, including allies against terrorist organisations, Trump is trying to demonstrate to the American people that he will instead use this money to improve their livelihoods.
However, his budgetary cuts may prove to be short-sighted and seeking to extract short-term gains in his already plummeting approval ratings in exchange for long-term interests such as maintaining influence with key partners. The amount of money saved does not even equal 1 percent of the value of the tranche of trade deals just concluded with the Saudis, and is hardly an unjustified expense given what the US gains by such small investments.
Compared to the hundreds of billions he just hauled out of Saudi Arabia, is cutting a couple of hundred million dollars to key allies in the war against ISIS who need US help to support their economies a wise strategy? Or is it a clear sign that Trump’s populist policies are merely going to damage America’s long-term global influence?
My money is on the latter, and shows how Trump is taking from the poor and the rich from the Middle East, with no clear insight into how his actions will affect Washington’s long-term interests.