A relationship under stress

Post-Khashoggi, how long can Saudi Arabia retain leverage over the U.S.?
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has reportedly concluded that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, personally ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The murder of the Saudi dissident journalist at the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on October 2 has already triggered a global outrage against MBS, as the Crown Prince is known. But U.S. President Donald Trump seems unfazed by both the findings of his spy agency as well as the mounting global outcry. He called the CIA assessment “very premature”, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S.’s “historic commitment” to Saudi Arabia is “absolutely vital to America’s security” and its “interests in the Middle East”.

But President Trump has reversed this approach and rebuilt the administration’s West Asia policy, making Saudi Arabia its centrepiece. The twin objectives of the Trump policy are to ensure Israel’s security and roll back Iranian influence. It’s this tilt that is now stopping him from moving against the Saudis. The administration has already declared what its Iran policy is. It has already pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal. And the Americans need Saudi support in their effort to isolate and weaken Iran, something Israel too has been demanding for years. But this is not a larger national security argument, nor is it a realistic one. When the fundamentals of a partnership get weakened and the region undergoes major changes, how long can the U.S. allow its Iran obsession to dictate its policies towards West Asia?

From the realpolitik point, even if the U.S. wants to limit Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia under MBS is not helping the cause. It lost the Syria war. Its intervention in Yemen drove the Houthis further into Iran’s embrace. The Qatar blockade has divided the Arab world (Qatar has now quit OPEC as well). The detention of the Lebanese Prime Minister last year has played Lebanese politics into the hands of Hezbollah, the Iran ally. Mr. Trump, wary of not disrupting his West Asia policy, may stay the course on Saudi Arabia for now. But the growing criticisms of the partnership on Capitol Hill can’t be ignored. The Senate has already voted with a huge majority to move forward legislation to end the U.S. involvement in the Yemen war.

Republican Senator Bob Corker accused the White House of “moonlighting as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince”. Rand Paul, another Republican Senator, says it’s time for America to stand up and tell Saudi Arabia, “enough”. These are not isolated moral outbursts; they suggest changing undercurrents. There is a growing realisation in Washington that the Saudi pillar of its West Asia policy is getting weak. Mr. Trump, driven by his own notional obsessions, might overlook it. But future American Presidents can’t. They may have to start from where Mr. Obama stopped.

Source : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/a-relationship-under-stress/article25684194.ece

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