Donald Trump’s up-coming visit to Saudi Arabia is likely to see him granting a de-facto recognition to the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA), or the so-called “Arab Nato.” This, however, is far from a customary recognition, aimed at mending the damage done to the US-Saudia bi-lateral relations during the Obama years. It is, given the Middle East’s regional circumstances whereby the erstwhile dominant “Sunni” powers are facing a resurgent “Shia” Iran, a part of the new strategy the Trump administration is putting in. According to the so-far revealed aspects of the strategy the Trump administration is seeking to deepen its allies’ engagement in the region to counter terrorism and corollary reduce its own direct and long-term military commitments. The document says, “We will seek to avoid costly, large-scale US military interventions to achieve counterterrorism objectives and will increasingly look to partners to share the responsibility for countering terrorist groups.”
While it looks like an implementation of Trump’s “America first” policy, a deeper look would reveal that it is more of a move towards “off-shore balancing” than towards actually reversing the potentially destructive role the US has been playing in the region specifically, and the whole world generally, since at least the end of the Second World War.
As such, while the US might decide to apparently reduce its military engagement, it is not likely to reduce, in any meaningful way, the direct and indirect ways of funding wars; hence, fresh defence deals with the House of Saud.
According to the White House official, the new strategy is aimed at reducing terror threats and protect the interest of the US and those its allies, such as Saudi Arabia. Let’s not forget that the Saudi officials have repeatedly mentioned Iran as the biggest threat to their national security and regional interests and it is again Iran that Saudi Arabia considers its most crucial contender. Again, it is for this very reason that the House of Saud has ruled out the possibility of Iran’s participation in the IMA.
What the new defence deals between Saudi Arabia and the US therefore mean, keeping in mind the objectives laid out in the new strategy document, is nothing but an indirect consent to Saudi Arabia’s destructive wars in the region, particularly in Yemen and Syria. This is precisely the idea behind the extensive negotiations that have been going on between the US and Saudia officials, an important aspect of which has been the creation of a unified “Sunni” coalition of countries, which would set the stage for a more formal Nato-like organisational structure down the line. `We all have the same enemy and we all want the same thing, ` a US official was reported to have said when asked about the “Arab Nato”. `What this (Trump’s) trip (to Saudi Arabia) hopefully will do is just change the environment’, or what should more openly be called the regional balance of power which has tilted to Iran in the last 2 years or so. In addition to it, this potential re-activation of US engagement in the region is expected to check Russia, which has been steadily increasing its foot-step, filling the vacuum left by the Obama administration.
Therefore, part of the solution is sale of more arms and modern weapon systems to the Gulf States. Not only would it help the US economically, but would also allow it to play Arab countries against each other rather more freely. While full details are still being worked out, the US officials have said that the package is highly expected to include between $98 billion and $128bn in arms sales. Over 10 years, total sales could reach $350bn. The sales include huge upgrades for the Saudi army and navy to include Littoral Combat Ships, THAAD missile defence systems, armoured personnel carriers, missiles, bombs and munitions, officials said. Some of the production and assembly could be located in Saudi Arabia, boosting Mohammad Bin Salman, known as MBS in the US, project to build a Saudi domestic defence industrial capability. But most of the items would be built by American defence contractors.
Such big deals not only speak volumes about the extent to which the US is going down to co-opt Saudi Arabia as a part of the former’s “off-shore balancing” strategy, but also throws light on how the US is cultivating the House of Saud as the leader of the region.
Needless to say, during his visit to Saudi Arabia, starting from May 19, Trump is going to have a series of meeting with Saudi officials and a separate session with leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. Most important of these meetings, however, is the lunch with Arab and Muslim leaders, 56 of whom have been invited.
What holding the meeting with almost entire Muslim world, excluding of course Iran, in Saudi Arabia implies is a de-facto recognition of Saudi Arabia as the most important player, or even a leader, of the “Arab Nato.” Accordingly, a major part of the agenda of these meetings is going to be the Syrian civil war and Iran’s role in the Strait of Hormuz and in the Red Sea.
It is quite evident that whereas the “Sunni” coalition is seeking to reap the fruit of anti-Iran hysteria the Trump administration is filled with and is using it to turn the bad-Obama-era relations into promising-Trump-era ties, the US itself is seeking potential benefits out of Saudi Arabia’s own push for regional leadership. The announcement of the new security framework and the huge arms deal are evidence that the Saudi courtship of the Trump White House has been successful beyond expectations.
There is no gainsaying that by bolstering the Gulf States and by cultivating the House of Saud as the regional leader, the US is potentially sowing seeds of more wars. And, as the history of the US military industry complex shows, wars have been hugely beneficial. Economy, in this case, does matter, a fact that the US official did not hesitate to accept when he was recently reported to have said that such billion-dollar deals are “good for the American economy but it will also be good in terms of building a capability that is appropriate for the challenges of the region.”
Building military capability has historically been another name of the ability to wage wars. The House of Saud will now have at its disposal not only arms and weapon systems to flex its military muscle on an even greater scale but also the assurance that the US will intervene, as the 11-page released document states, “to disrupt, prevent and respond to terrorist attacks against our nation, our citizens, our interests overseas and our allies. This includes taking direct and unilateral action, if necessary.”
Therefore, there is no reason for us to believe that the US under the Trump administration will essentially contribute to the development of peace. All it can do, much like its predecessors, cultivate “allies” to wage wars so that weapon systems remain an alive commodity in the global conflict-market and so that the wheel of the economy keeps running uninterruptedly. The Trump administration, consisting of a number of capitalist minds, is selling old wine in a new bottle. Let’s expect anything but peace!
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.