Before dozens of Muslim and Arab leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, President Trump called for a coordinated effort against terrorism. Paradoxically, he emphasized that the initiative was separate from concerns related to human rights and democracy within the allied nations present.
“This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it,” Trump said.
Like the welcoming ceremony, the Trump administration’s greater strategy is symbolic without substance.
The defense deal with Saudi Arabia totals $350 billion over the course of a 10-year economic agreement that seeks to expand skilled labour by 2030, with $110 billion being immediately accessible. As part of the granular process through which arms are sold to foreign governments, agreements of this magnitude come under Congressional review.
Private-equity firm Blackstone — whose CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, is head of the White House’s economic advisory council of CEOs — is leading a $40 billion infrastructure fund. The Saudi administration is thinking long-term: the government is shifting national wealth from oil into technology through trillions of dollars in investments across a broad range of industries and companies, including Uber.
The Trump administration’s proposal for the future of Middle Eastern relations has been described as creating a unified front of primarily Sunni-led nations — like an Arab equivalent to NATO — against Iran and terrorist organisations. The move mirrors previous mistakes of American foreign policy that involve empowering questionable ideologies at the expense of ethical integrity. In this mindset, international affairs are presented in a starkly sectarian Sunni-Shia binary and reliant on the false notion that Gulf nations have been effective allies against extremism while refusing to consider rational diplomacy with Iran.
The deal empowers the most undeserving and incompetent voices that actively work to hinder human rights, belittle the interests of Muslims throughout the world, and ultimately promote the alleged enemy of religious extremism.
As the deal indicates, sectarian framing will continue to be essential to US relations. But no human rights violation is too egregious in the pursuit of promoting freedom, with the right affiliation. Religious and political minorities have no promise of protection and serve as pawns of appeasement for select regional allies. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Egypt, will continue proactively killing and imprisoning political opponents. Trump recently praised the government of Bahrain, where an empowered, Sunni minority-led government routinely kills, persecutes, and imprisons members of its population for any expression of political dissidence and religious diversity.
The US tacitly endorses Saudi Arabia and its intellectual influence through arms and strategic inaction: American weapons sales to the country increased to 96 percent over the course of the Bush and Obama administrations, with the liberal latter specifically optioning some $115 billion. Proponents insist that selling arms to Saudi Arabia does in fact benefit the US through corporate growth, job creation, and influence; however, strengthening the American economy is a task that exceeds the scope of a limited trade agreement.
Both the Trump administration and his campaign targeted political opponents and championed nationalist messages through relentless — and often valid — criticism of Gulf states, namely the Saudi administration, with a focus on known financial connections to Islamist terror and consistent failures in advancing women’s rights. Hillary Clinton’s prior relations with the Kingdom were an unshakable critique that tore even committed, progressive liberals away from her in both the primaries and general election. And now Trump — creature of convenience — leads the embrace that many of his complacent supporters and ideological kin would otherwise resist in every way conceivable.
Sectarianism empowers extremists.
Framing a conflict in sectarian terms obscures the very real political dynamics that activate religious militancy. The US and other nations repeatedly ignore the actual interests and motivations of their opponents and allies, thus leading to misguided foreign policy decisions based on false presumptions. Backing a militant political organisation without considering their long-term incentives is a prime example. Strategic myopia is dangerous: consider the Afghan militants who were armed, organised, and encouraged by multiple American administrations in order to repel Soviet and communist interests.
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke to reporters on the subject of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani being re-elected, he called for the victorious incumbent to promote human rights and end state support of terror in the Middle East. Was he aware of the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
Theocracy and oppression emerge in different forms. Iran, of course, is one of many countries where the direct intervention of the United States and its extended intelligence community led to the removal of a legitimate, secular leader in exchange for a militant authoritarian — in this case, the coup occurring in 1953 and leading to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the empowerment of the fundamentalist faction that American leaders presently portray as their primary adversary.
The pattern of failed policymaking is obvious, as are the poor decisions and limited vision of the experts and leaders who are consistently responsible for it. What was justifiable and seemingly essential in the moment can quickly become detrimental when placed in the uncertain context of reality.
Saudi Arabia is an ineffective ally.
Saudi Arabia has done more to suppress human rights throughout the world — of Muslims and otherwise — than combat religious extremism. Despite being a recipient of both infinite resources and praise, the traditional Saudi-US alliance has yet to provide the United States with any significant tactical advantage or resolution in a core conflict. The ruling royalty and religious orthodoxy that enshrine their power are the clear benefactors of this reaffirmation of US foreign policy, achieving further legitimacy on the global stage in place of more worthwhile peers.
The negative impact of a Saudi-led, unified Arab front against extremism is already evident in the intentional disregard in Yemen, where the administration — and the national government it backs — is leading a war against the Houthis, a distinctive Shia rebel group. The conflict is ongoing, with no sign of ceasing in any equitable way. Saudi Arabia — with operational assistance of the US and other Gulf nations — has committed what the United Nations have identified as human rights violations: civilian centers of all types — from hospitals to schools and farms — have been intentionally targeted with no regard for casualties and the loss of innocent human life.
Thousands have died, millions have been displaced, and many more are being affected by famine.
At a certain point, the impact of the Saudi state in Yemen is indistinguishable from the Assad regime in Syria and ISIS in Iraq. And for what but the satisfaction of incompetent despots?
Can one truly endow Saudi Arabia with the task of reconstructing the country without further civilian casualties and ethical atrocities? Has their administration earned that role through such betrayal and bloodshed? Already, Trump is toothless on the issue: the Obama administration had suspended the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia due to their disregard for civilian life in Yemen. These restrictions have now been lifted and the present arms deal includes those very weapons, along with ships and naval equipment to further embolden Saudi presence in the Persian Gulf.
History and current operations indicate that Saudi Arabia has yet to be significantly influenced by this style of diplomacy: the Kingdom and its peers are either incompetent or indifferent in stopping the funding and spread of Islamic extremism. Saudi Arabia itself is an autocracy enshrined in religious claims and theocratic governance.
The intelligence communities of the United States and beyond have repeatedly identified Gulf sources as critical to the funding of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and miscellaneous Sunni militants in Syria. The main purpose of uprooting militant fundamentalism is already defeated by the fact that these demands have long been repeated without impact from the responsible parties.
Saudi Arabia acts with the presumption that America will cater to its demands, and it has repeatedly been proven correct that the US government will forgo deeper geopolitical advantages in exchange for the illusion of access to influence.
Saudi Arabia has failed to advocate for Muslims.
Saudi Arabia and its privileged Gulf allies cannot be trusted to ethically represent the interests of Muslims worldwide. But they can be trusted to advance their own while speaking as guardians of the Ummah.
Like the United States, the Kingdom’s leadership is eager to lay claim to Muslim identity to gain power and influence, but has yet to demonstrate any indication of being prepared or worthy of leadership in reform or peacekeeping. Consider the commonplace enslavement and torture of Muslim migrant workers, the incessant killing of civilians in Yemen, proactive persecution of religious minorities, and the languid, ineffective response of the government to extremist funding as proof of an administration that is simply incapable or unwilling.
The human desires of power and influence are often enshrouded in the causes of religion and righteousness. If the Saudi administration and its intellectual allies were genuinely interested in thwarting global terrorism and not only maintaining their own archaic interests, the countless Muslim lives vanquished by Gulf-funded jihadist militants would surely have provided impetus for any significant effort.
Saudi values have created a society that resembles what a reformed, functional North Korea might one day be: the state functions to reinforce a familial, patriarchal, authoritarian power structure that relies on mystical claims to deflect criticism, dialogue, and the expansion of rights.
The strain of political fundamentalism promoted by Saudi Arabia indeed has its nuances: anyone deemed heretical or blasphemous will likely be executed or imprisoned by the same administration that approves the demolition of Islamic historical sites in Mecca to make way for luxury hotels and opulent shopping malls that invoke the design choices of a real estate developer in Las Vegas.
To combat extremism, change perspectives.
Alliances are consequential. Human lives and finite resources are at stake. The present course of the Trump administration signals a continuation of the cognitive errors that underlie poor foreign policy.
Though the deal has been set in motion, there are alternatives for future policymakers that possess the courage to pursue them:
- Abandon the sectarian framing, intellectually and in official relations, allowing for further diversity in Muslim perspectives in the effort against extremism.
- Confront extremism in all forms, no matter the ideology or sect of its source.
- Push resources into economic and technological development as a structural solution to radicalization.
- Leverage US influence for direct impact, not access alone.
Rational discussion first requires rational framing: making progress requires that the Trump administration acknowledge the actual interests of the governments and peoples it interacts with.
Like Israel militarily, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly proven to be a languid ally that acts in its own interests, accepting US support in the spirit of collaboration whilst contributing to conflict at a systemic level. Notions of cooperation are performative without substance and short-term at best. After so much grandstanding about boldly representing US interests in the Middle East and breaking servile traditions, the administration’s actions represent a predictable lack of interest in innovation.
Portraying Iran in abstract, adversarial terms is both unrealistic and strategically useless. Economic growth, energy development, and religious pluralism each represent tangible points for productive relations between the United States and its alleged enemy. Comparatively, Iran has gradually maintained a higher level of human rights for a broader range of people than the Kingdom and its peers of equal economic influence have ever demonstrated any interest in or capacity for. Where some governments turn to warfare, there is vast diplomatic potential in scientific collaboration and technology, or, in the least, the subtle message of engaging with a leading Islamic nation that allows for public influence in elections and less restrictions on women’s rights.
During his speech, Trump referred to the government of Iran as one “that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.”
For many of the nations represented there, along with the host country, it was equally applicable.
American administrations will change, but the ethical fluidity of its foreign policy — a remarkable capacity for rewarding atrocities intended to solve another — will remain.