It cannot be questioned that the apparent murder of Saudi born journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a tragic event that is deeply distressing at a human level. But beyond this, the political grandstanding of Donald Trump’s opponents in the United States give Saudi Arabian palace coups a bad name when it comes to pomposity and hypocrisy.
There is an aphorism in the United States that states that the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. In more recent decades, in addition to death and taxes, both American political parties offering their unflinching support to both Israel and its de-facto (though unrecognised) ally Saudi Arabia is also the rule in US politics.
Therefore, it is not just hypocritical but sickening to see member after member of the Democratic party heaping scorn on the Trump administration’s admittedly soft-touch approach to Riyadh in the wake of Jamal Jamal Khashoggi’s mysterious and seemingly obvious demise. It cannot be forgotten that Hillary Clinton had many more contacts with Saudi backers during her campaign than just about any other Democratic nominee in modern American history. In fact, during the campaign Donald Trump criticised Saudi Arabia far more than Clinton while Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal made an open intervention during the campaign discouraging Americans from voting for Trump. Beyond this, it was under Democratic President Barack Obama that the Saudi led war on Yemen began – a war which was supported by Obama and remains supported under Trump.
At the same time, it has been under Obama and Trump where relations with Turkey have plunged to historic lows in spite of Turkey being a NATO member (unlike Saudi Arabia). In this sense, when it comes to the dynamics of the Middle East, apart from some rhetorical intonation, there is very little separating America’s two main parties from one another where Saudi Arabia and Israel are concerned.
While little in the US is being said relating to the fact that Turkish President Erdogan’s statements regarding Riyadh have been vindicated by the recent developments in Istanbul, there is no serious question of the US doing anything to punish Saudi Arabia. This is simply not going to happen. It is therefore bitterly ironic that at a time when Saudi Arabia looks clearly guilty of a horrific crime, more American policy makers continue to drag their feet on prioritising a rapid rapprochement with Turkey than they are seriously (key word) considering doing anything to downgrade relations with Riyadh.
Instead, the existing political divides in the US between Democrats and neocon Republicans on one side and Trump supporting Republicans on the other is akin to the dynamics inside the House of Saud. On the one hand traditional elites in both the US and Saudi Arabia favour the jettisoning of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman from power to be replaced by a more “predictable” heir to the throne. Here, Mohammad bin Naif being represents one such candidate. On the other hand, Donald Trump’s close relationship with Mohammad bin Salman as well as that of his son-in-law Jared Kushner to the de-facto Saudi leader makes it clear that in the event of an externally provoked palace coup, it is likely that Trump’s support would lie with the current Crown Prince.
By contrast, were a Hillary Clinton character in power, chances are that a palace coup to oust Mohammad bin Salman could easily be green-lighted. The fact that former Obama CIA director John Brennan has joined the anti-Mohammad bin Salman crusade is a clear testament to such a hypothetical reality.
But by no means does this indicate that a Democratic White House would favour a kind of “Arab spring” in Riyadh. They would simply seek to oust a controversial radical who happens to have greatly improved Saudi Arabia’s relations with both China and Russia with a more traditional leader who if anything would not seek to balance strong US-Saudi ties with the Asian superpowers.
Thus, while Trump is able to overlook Mohammad bin Salman’s geopolitical multipolarity in return for extreme loyalty complete with a barely veiled endorsement of Zionism, for the Democrats, they’d simply want a return to business as usual which would still be very big business for the American military-industrial complex as it has been for decades.
While Turkey continues to be unfairly maligned by both US parties for its steadfast war against terror groups including Daesh, FETO and PKK, the US relationship with Saudi Arabia is not going to change in any significant way irrespective of which party puts a President in the White House. While the Democrats are now invoking anti-Saudi rhetoric in the run-up to this year’s Congressional med-term elections, it is instructive to remember that Donald Trump did the same prior to his election. Shortly thereafter, he dutifully visited both Riyadh and Tel Aviv where he heaped nothing but praise on America’s top Middle Eastern allies.
In this sense, while the two parties in the United States favour different elements of the Saudi monarchy, both are completely happy with the positive relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia as a whole. The dead in Yemen did not change this and the death of Jamal Khashoggi will not change this either.
While Turkey has maintained a consistent position vis-a-vis relations with Riyadh in recent years, the only thing consistent about America’s policies towards Riyadh is that it is consistently hypocritical.