What the Saudis can teach us about the real world

Friday was a big day for Saudi Arabia and for our homeland security.

The Saudi royal family hosted a high-profile dinner to celebrate the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, and that likely included a visit from his half-brother, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and maybe even President Trump. (Details are sketchy: The White House only confirmed the affair was for the Saudis, not journalists, and no word yet on who might be there.)

The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum has the story. You don’t need to be a Middle East expert to appreciate the significance of a group of oil-rich brothers toying with the delicate balance of regional power, or to recall how our intelligence community came perilously close to miscalculating what happened in 1979, when the House Un-American Activities Committee asked for the Saudi royal family’s deposition in a congressional inquiry. (The Saudis later complained to Ronald Reagan, complaining that the U.S. government was blindly following a handful of evil Communists back to Washington and jeopardizing national security.)

Saudi Arabia and the United States began having real problems around the 1980s. After the loss of the Soviet Union, the Gulf was viewed by Washington as a vassal state that should stay shut up and roll over. For the first time in decades, Saudi Arabia’s neighbors were freer to criticize their archrival, especially Iran.

The Saudi monarchy reached out to different capitals, among them Egypt. Though Salman bin Abdulaziz was later seen as a neocon, his son is not. In his recent interview with the Financial Times, the Crown Prince spelt out Saudi goals.

It is not the view that Iran is a “bad” regime – it is the view that Iran is acting like an “evil” country and that its objectives are completely incompatible with the interests of the United States and others. The regional conflicts are a result of Iran’s regional ambitions, which are non-negotiable. If Iran were to roll back these ambitions, regional peace and stability would be restored and the terror networks – the ones that Iran and its proxies are creating – would diminish.

From Turkey and Egypt, the Saudi government tried to isolate Tehran for a while. Erdogan viewed this as part of his own political playbook. But eventually the Iranians started showing some real mettle, and soon it was Egypt and Saudi Arabia against the street protests in Bahrain.

The Arab Spring revolution that shook the Arab world was unfolding. Eventually Egypt had to send its troops into the country. And the American deep state decided to stick its nose into Egypt. I’ve always maintained that our interests in the Arab world are mostly found in Turkey, Israel and Egypt. It makes little sense to prop up a regime that is no threat to us, since the regime could last a couple of weeks, if not a couple of months.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman told a Reuters reporter in May 2016 that the Saudis had long wanted to set up a secret “economic counterterrorism group.” They could have organized lucrative business deals that don’t benefit us. The Saudis instead turned to a group of puppets that are barely aware of anything other than what they are being told by the United States.

The Saudis have tried to create a monolithic coalition of extremists, extremists, extremists. They have taken a page from the revolutionary playbook of the Salafists, who began the East-West Sunni war in the mid-19th century. They’ve gone further in expelling us and even expelling Jews from the Middle East, all while fomenting violence and radicalizing populations that might otherwise have been open to our pro-democracy message.

The Trump administration seemed hell-bent on reasserting America’s control of the Middle East by producing a “forgotten” doctrine of a “free” Middle East from Washington. (Call it the “Dublin Plan” or the “Jerusalem Plan.”) Our President was loudly trying to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, which has been responsible for slaughtering American citizens through its abuse of the citizens of Yemen.

Has the Trump administration seen the wood for the trees? Does it still believe that — as I said on the campaign trail — Iraq, Syria and Iran are our enemies, as opposed to Saudi Arabia and Egypt?

The House of Saud is not asking us to be friends. It is asking us to keep tolerating them because they are willing to hand over billions of dollars in taxes and royalties to the United States, on a regular basis. These taxes and royalties are designed to pay for what we want from them — such as supporting our military. But in exchange for our support, they’re throwing American soldiers and special agents off their backs.

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