By any view, Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East was bound to become a difficult one. While the axis Tel-Aviv–Riyadh has in recent years become quasi-determinative of Washington’s foreign policy in the region, both of the increasingly openly collaborating ultra-repressive racialist-tribalist theocracies have also continued to embarrass and delegitimise Washington’s foreign policy discourse of human rights and democracy promotion, a fact that has become increasingly displeasing to a faction of Washington’s foreign policy and military elite whose support has brought Donald Trump to the White House.
Concerning Riyadh, Donald Trump had already made clear during his presidential campaign that he was determined to rebalance the relationship between the United States and the Saudi kingdom. A good part of Trump’s dramatic pre-election ‘draining the swamp’ rhetoric had focused on the ultra-repressive medieval theocracy and its infamously intimate ties with Washington’s political families.
In the process of Saudi Arabia’s brief history as a state, closely linked with British imperialism and its American successor version under the Carter doctrine, Saudi elites have become interwoven into the very fabric of Washington’s political and financial establishment. Aside from the notorious personal connections to the Bush family, for example, Saudi elites are, to this day, known to buy their often ghost-writer-produced degrees at prestigious East Coast universities like Georgetown. The twentieth century has seen the creation of a country whose territory is literally the private property of the Saud family and its status as a sort of geopolitical canary, whose existence is deeply dependent on Washington’s military protection and intelligence support, as well as Western technological backing. Without it, Riyadh—politically speaking, essentially constituted of a vast family of decadent billionaires who consider it shameful to work—would likely descend into chaos at the hands of its millions of resentful foreign slave-workers so quickly it would make the Arab Spring seem a picnic.
However, dependence has been a two-way street. Saudi Arabia has become the West’s welfare state of sorts, with its abundant oil money being used as a financing arm for Western military industrial complexes and a budgetary back-channel for black-ops. Riyadh’s support, with Washington’s approval, is known to make or break Western politicians, geopolitical projects, and entire industries. Thus, a tightly-knit transnational power clique of Western political and technological muscle and Saudi money has formed, mutually supporting each other. This political clique is largely responsible for the destabilisation of Middle Eastern countries in recent years, with Riyadh having cofinanced the radical Islamist destabilisations of its regional competitors—coincidentally all constituting more legitimate contenders for representing Islamic civilisation.
Trump’s visit and his inflammatory anti-terrorist rhetoric is therefore bound to provoke tensions. Washington has in recent months multiplied its communications apparently wanting to continue its rapprochement with Moscow to eliminate the Saudi-financed foreign policy tool of mercenary jihadism, a project that was hinted at during Trump’s presidential campaign when he evoked the delicate issue of Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Trump declared he wanted to destroy jihadism in the region rather that tacitly tolerate and support it as previous administrations had, while at the same time milking the kingdom for another US$400 billion to finance his domestic policy of industrial redevelopment, which will secure his position with his electoral clientele.
In return, so far, everything Saudi Arabia appears to have been getting out of the deal (aside from the questionable future returns of US ‘rust-belt’ industrial redevelopment money) is to lure Trump into embarrassing poses like the cringe-worthy sword dance, with a visibly awkward Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, or the genius awarding of a medal that required the president to bow slightly before the Saudi king (Obama’s prior bowing to the Saudi king had been turned into a major political meme of the far Right, supposedly illustrating the obedience of Washington’s left-wing political elites to radical Islam).
Meanwhile, Trump’s visit to Tel-Aviv was unlikely to have offered the President offer any substantial relaxation. On the surface, Trump had already done everything he could to affirm his support of the Israeli state, including promising to end the nuclear agreement with Iran and to support a shift of the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. These moves had been intended to obtain the minimum political support of US Zionist elites, who, as described in Harvard scholars Walt and Mearsheimer’s famous book on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy—doubtlessly constitute Washington’s most powerful lobby, but who were in large part opposed to a Trump presidency. After the election, despite continuing his overly friendly declarations, Trump did not implement any of his pledges. The nuclear agreement with Iran cementing Tehran’s status as a decisive regional actor still holds, and Washington has not taken any steps in support of making Jerusalem the Israeli capital, let alone supporting the increasingly hysterical calls of Israeli politicians like Housing Minister Yoav Galant to kill Bashar Al-Assad. Trump had already embarrassed Israeli officials by receiving Palestinian President Abbas in the White House and calling on Israel to exercise restraint it its settlement policy.
As a result, behind the scenes, Trump’s visit was full of tensions. Netanyahu, who was said to have wanted to accompany Trump’s historic visit to the Wailing Wall, was not heard; Trump went alone. In return, Israeli officials prevented the coming of a group of Palestinian Christian boy scouts to accompany Trump to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, initially planned in the protocol of the visit. Further tension arose when US diplomats called the Wailing Wall part of the West Bank, and now it has emerged that Trump left a ridiculously brief note at Yad Vashem, which, rather than a gaffe, much more likely represents the President’s unwillingness to symbolically submit to Israeli claims of historical exceptionalism, which the state continuously invokes to defend its apartheid policies and violations of international law.
This tacit work of moderation and rebalancing in Riyadh and Tel-Aviv therefore has the potential to leave one a little hopeful about the new President’s foreign policy. It should, however, not detract from the fact that Trump continues to exclude Israeli military aid from the radical slashing of the US foreign aid budget. The gigantic US annual multi-billion dollar security budget support for Israel is the real strategic issue determining US–Israeli relations. It has turned the state, despite its small population, into one of the world’s most powerful militaries, with its own (German submarine-based) nuclear second-strike capacity, and a major technological hub for its uber-strategic cybersecurity sector. Deemed an untouchable ‘holy cow’ in Washington’s budget, and given domestic political power relations, it is likely to remain firmly in place for years to come.
All the same, Trump’s awkward-looking but firmly realist symbolism has the potential to further generate and agitate politically and financially extremely powerful enemies, who will be searching to find ways to prevent the President from finishing his mandate.