Dubious Partnership: The US and Saudi Arabia

In recent months Donald Trump has shown no hesitation to comment critically on political developments in Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, and North Korea. He supported protests in Iran against "the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime." He deplored the many years of US military aid to Pakistan, for which "they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. . . . No more!" His criticisms of the Maduro government in Venezuela were accompanied by the threat to use the "military option," reminiscent of what Trump had once said when talking about Mexico. And of course his personal insults directed at North Korea’s Kim Jong-un are now legendary.

Such interference is now taken for granted, for in Trump’s world, relying on diplomacy and abiding by the principle of noninterference in others’ affairs have no currency in Washington. Of course trying to destabilize other countries, even to the point of seeking regime change, has been part and parcel of US foreign policy for a long time. The difference now may be the constancy of Trump’s interference, and the undiplomatic language he uses.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Trump reserves his harshest tweets for governments he dislikes. When it comes to friends like Israel, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, the operating principle is "hands-off." They are allowed to use every trick in the book to buy influence in Washington: gaining special access to decision makers, investing in the US economy and offering investment opportunities in their own country, hiring former US officials to lobby, inviting American opinion leaders to lavish conferences, putting on opulent displays of affection when top US officials visit. These folks know Americans will bite at a chance for profit and attention, and pay back with access and influence. Russia’s successful hookups with Trump’s campaign and administration officials in order to end US sanctions are only the latest and most glaring examples of a longstanding problem of influence-buying. They haven’t succeeded so far, but the effort has literally cost them peanuts.

Saudi Arabia has played the influence game just as aggressively as the Russians, and for much longer. Saudi money has effectively lobbied in Washington for many years, often relying on former members of Congress. The Saudis also seek to influence US politics by funding NGOs (e.g., the Clinton Foundation), think tanks, law firms, social media, and even political action committees. Saudi investors, including members of the royal family, may have as much as a half-trillion dollars invested in US real estate, the stock market, and US treasury bills. At the time of Trump’s visit in May the Saudi leadership committed to another $40 billion in infrastructure investments, though whether or not that will actually happen is another matter.

The payoff for the Saudis is arms acquisitions that have usually put Saudi Arabia first on the US arms export list. The $110 billion arms deal…

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