Ahead of US midterm elections, can Saudi Arabia's defence deal ensure the Christian conservative vote for Trump, and in the process potentially derail justice for Jamal Khashoggi?
Following Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's high profile meeting with evangelical leaders close to President Donald Trump, Richard Silverstein, speaking to TRT World, compares Saudi Arabia's relationship with evangelical Christian groups to Israel's close ties with evangelical lobbies in the United States.
"It's really a cyclical and exploitative relationship. The Saudi's need support in US political circles, so they turn to the evangelicals."
The "extremely cynical relationship" is a "relationship of convenience," he adds.
Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman "needs allies in the United States and is desperately trying to sell, which is a relationship with the US and the Trump administration. So he's willing to go to the devil to do it, because I can't imagine any Muslim would want to make common ground with evangelicals who are trying to convert everybody in the world, including most Christianity," says Silverstein.
In the presidential race that led to his victory, Donald Trump won 81 percent of the Christian evangelical vote, more than even George W. Bush, a public evangelical himself. Other influential conservative Christian voting blocs were not too far behind.
Saudi Arabia arms deal: kingmaker?
As the US gears up for the midterm elections, Trump will once more look to his established voter base for support.
On November 2, Trump’s evangelical advisors met with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh to discuss human rights, going on to cite the meeting’s success and the young prince’s “candour”.
The visit to Saudi Arabia, just days ahead of the US midterm elections, may be an indication of evangelical support for Trump’s stance on Saudi Arabia. This comes amidst widespread questions over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi Arabian hit squad, and whether the upper tiers of the kingdom’s decision-makers were involved.
Seeking to secure votes for the midterms, President Trump pushed heavily on the number of jobs his administration has provided, citing a major Saudi arms deal he had initially announced in May 2017, worth an initial $110 billion and $350 billion over the next ten years.
The number of jobs the deal is set to provide has shifted by Trump’s own testimony, changing from 40,000 to 1,000,000 jobs, and at times on the same day.
“Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world," said Trump.
The deal has come under international and domestic scrutiny, given Saudi Arabia’s devastating three-year war on Yemen, which has displaced millions and led to the deaths of tens of thousands.
The vast majority of Yemen's population, or 22 million people, require aid and 8.4 million people are on the brink of starvation.
With international backlash over the murder of Khashoggi, a vocal critic and loyalist of the kingdom, Trump has had to justify the deal, which contributes to the jobs pillar of his midterm election campaign.
“Foolish” to cancel the arms deal
Hitting back at criticism over the deal, Trump stated that it would be “foolish” to cancel the arms deals in response to the controversy over Khashoggi’s death.
“I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that,” he defends.
“There are other ways of punishing, to use a word that’s a pretty harsh word, but it’s true.”
Trump’s call was echoed by prominent evangelical speaker Pat Robertson, who told his viewers to “cool down the tempers of those who are screaming blood for the Saudis,” and not risk the loss of a $100 billion arms deal.
“We’ve got an arms deal that everybody wanted a piece of,” he said.
“It’ll be a lot of jobs, a lot of money come to our coffers. It’s not something you want to blow up willy-nilly.”
Robertson had previously stated that Trump was “chosen by God” to become president.
Speaking on the Christian TV show The 700 Club, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, emphasised that America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is too important to risk.
Hassan Imran, an independent analyst, speaking to TRT World notes that entrenched support of the conservative right for the defence industry "comes as no surprise", he says, given the prevalence of defence manufacturing bases across the US ‘Sun Belt’, traditionally home to conservative republican voter bases.
The F-35 delaying bill, co-sponsored by senators Thom Tillis and Jeanne Shaheen—who come from predominantly evangelical constituencies—was a nod to the evangelical voter base as it sought to pressure Turkey into releasing evangelical Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was accused of espionage.
The evangelical voter base has been crucial to Republican victories in the past, with Trump and Pence catering to the demographic ahead of the 2018 midterm primary elections, to ensure continued Republican control of Congress.
Their vocal support of the Saudi arms deal is in line with this, given that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Republican nominee Trump, according to an exit poll.
A poll conducted by PRRI suggests nearly 70 percent of evangelicals support Donald Trump for the 2020 elections.
“[The US] Congress and the administration are very sensitive towards their evangelical electoral base,” Brookings analyst Kemal Kirisci says.
Religious ties crossing legal lines
Religious links between Christian conservatives and the US Army, once the subject of scandal, are becoming increasingly frequent.
In 2006, seven army and air force officers appeared in an evangelical advertisement, quickly garnering domestic attention. In August 2018, Air Force Brigadier General E. John Teichert, in charge of the US’s most elite air force branch, was accused of running an online Christian sermon for the last five years, in spite of laws against religious proselytising in the military, with no action taken against him.
General Teichert, coincidentally, was recently promoted to commander of a prestigious test unit closely linked to the US aerospace defence industry. This wasn’t an isolated incident.
In 2011, Chaplains at an air force base in Vandenburg, California, taught a course entitled “Christian Just War Theory”, using Christian theology to justify nuclear warfare.
This presents a worrying trend over links between the White House administration, the US military-industrial complex, and a more empowered Christian conservative right.
But it doesn’t end there. The US administration has seen a spate of key appointments of evangelicals by President Trump, notably US Vice President Mike Pence, former CIA director and Trump’s presidential running mate Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Sam Brownback, the US ambassador for international religious freedom.
With the increasing appointments of military generals in the White House, Donald Abelson, author of Do Think Tanks Matter, believes that the Christian evangelical presence and influence will only continue to rise, and with it, the support of key pro-defence policy decisions.
The rise of conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, Center for American Progress, Brookings Institute, Stratfor, the Hudson Institute and Center for Security Policy, who support increased defence spending, are emboldened by the presence of a receptive conservative administration.
Only months ago, Trump hosted a state dinner for evangelical leaders at the White House, where Robert Jeffress, called Trump “the greatest leader for Christianity”.
As evangelical presence becomes more prevalent in the White House, will profit and domestic politics take the lead over justice for Jamal Khashoggi?