The House of Trump and the House of Saud

The blossoming relationship with Riyadh symbolises the decay of the US-led order

Edward Luce

One of Donald Trump's first overseas trips was to Riyadh to meet the royal family, including the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman © FT montage; Bloomberg; Getty Images

You might say it is a match made in heaven. With their taste in gold elevators, the Trump family and the House of Saud were destined to alight at the same penthouse. But the affinity between Donald Trump, US president, and Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto monarch, goes beyond a shared aesthetic for “dictator chic”. It is chiefly transactional. The US-Saudi relationship is the quintessence of Trumpian diplomacy. Its flowering symbolises the decay in the US-led global order.

Mr Trump’s approach to foreign relations is a blend of family and money and a weakness for flattery. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe pledged $50m to the Ivanka Trump-inspired Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative — the World Bank’s effort to seduce America’s first family. Mr Abe, whose first gift to Mr Trump was a gold-plated golf club, hosted Ms Trump in Tokyo shortly before her father turned up. Six months ago, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates became the first donors to Ms Trump’s scheme with a $100m grant. Now it is China’s turn to host Mr Trump. Its president, Xi Jinping, approved a flurry of Ivanka Trump trademarks shortly before he first met her father in Mar-a-Lago earlier this year.

Governments the world over are vying to catch the US first family’s eye. But it is the Saudis who perfected the art. It is no coincidence that Riyadh was Mr Trump’s first foreign destination after becoming president. His motive was obvious. The Saudis had agreed to unveil a $110bn arms contract with the US — exactly what Mr Trump was seeking. The fact that it consisted of letters of intent, most of which had been signed years earlier, was beside the point. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to pay for any of the big items. These include US naval vessels that have yet to be built and an anti-missile defence system the Saudis can no longer afford.

Mr Trump’s $110bn triumph was as close as you come to a “fake deal”, says Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA official on the Middle East. But the Saudis gave Mr Trump what he wanted: an eye-poppingly tweetable shopping list; cash for his daughter’s initiative; a gold carpet welcome; and the mutual goal of erasing Barack Obama’s legacy. Mr Trump is now repaying the Saudis with interest.

Last Saturday, Crown Prince Mohammed, known as MbS, launched a power grab that included arrests of other royal notables, at least one of whom was killed in a dubious accident.

Mr Trump tweeted that the crown prince and his father “know what they are doing”.

The purge followed a visit to Saudi Arabia last month by Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, who stayed up half the night discussing strategy with the crown prince. Mr Trump is also doing his part to weaken Mr Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, which the Saudis detest. He has also backed the crown prince’s Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, partly because of the city state’s close ties with Tehran.

It is unclear if Mr Trump is aware of what he has unleashed — or cares either way. But his support for MbS betrays two principles of US foreign policy. The first is to stoke a religious war. Mr Trump’s America is now firmly on the Sunni side of the regional Sunni-Shia conflict.

The Saudi bombing of Yemen, which has claimed thousands of civilian lives, may be a taste of thing to come. Mr Trump’s US is uninterested in Middle Eastern stability.

The second is to give succour to pluto-populist strongmen. Few more richly deserve a corruption inquiry than the Saudi royal family. Yet the crown prince’s pretext has no more credence than Mr Xi’s equivalent drive in China — or indeed Mr Trump’s vow to “drain the swamp” in Washington.

These are feints to win populist applause while tarnishing rivals. What each shares is a yen to personalise power. Regime labels such as autocracy and democracy offer little guide to their foreign policy. Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Turkey and others are suffering from leadership cults. It is no surprise they are scratching each other’s backs. The global shock is that America’s leader is among them.

Can the chess board return to where it was? That is doubtful. It is worth noting what Mr Trump did on his way to Asia — his most important trip as president. He could have made a clear statement about America’s values and alliances. Instead, he stopped off at the Trump Hotel in Hawaii, which is “tremendously successful”, the White House spokesperson pointed out.

It showed a president who cannot tell the difference between the national interest and his family business. It was the kind of self-dealing you would expect from a Saudi royal. But I repeat myself.

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