trump speaking with US flags in background

Trump Walking Tightrope on Saudi Arabia as Rulers Plan Succession

While US President Donald Trump has been hammered in the mainstream media for his slow-playing criticism and action on Saudi Arabia, he is walking a delicate political tightrope amid murmurs that Saudi Arabia might change its successor to the throne.

In the past week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA had ‘medium-to-high’ confidence that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) had personally targeted Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, to the extent of ‘probably ordering his death’.

Previously, we covered how there could be more than meets the eye in the murder.

Also, since when did the CIA do press releases?

Putting that to one side for a moment, Trump has resisted giving the Saudi Arabian government a broadside for one good reason.

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Potential for new successor

Namely, it is possible that MbS may not be in power for much longer.

Reuters has recently reported that the powerful Allegiance Council (the group of senior royal family members that decides successors to the throne) is considering opting for a different successor to King Salman.

This man would be Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the 76-year-old brother of the current King.

While Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz would be another autocratic ruler, he would also be more likely to purchase US arms — something MbS has been hesitant to do.

Indeed, ‘In a letter dated May 15, seen by Reuters, the crown prince requested that the defense ministry “focus on purchasing weapon systems and equipment in the most pressing fields” and get training on them, including the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

As a result, it’s possible to conclude that Trump likely does not appreciate the disloyalty of MbS given the cover he has provided the crown prince, and is potentially trying to buy time to leverage a change in leadership. 

Trump thinking more strategic than media gives him credit for

Trump is rarely praised for strategic thinking, but much like the trade war, he is playing the long game.

Just as Trump wants to end China’s forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft and cybercrime, he also wants to ensure that Iran does not establish hegemony in a volatile region.

Saudi Arabia provides a buttress against Iranian aggression (they recently test-fired a medium range ballistic missile), they are a valuable ally.

Critics of Trump’s approach to Saudi Arabia are thus, to an extent, naïve when it comes to the strategic mechanics of the Middle East — the Middle East is a messy place and all action in the region requires moral compromise.

Former US President Barack Obama for instance, idealistically hoped the Arab Spring in 2011 would lead to a new well-spring of democracy in the region.

We wound up with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood instead, not to mention civil wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq.

So, while Trump’s Saudi Arabia policy stance is not without risks, it would be best to reserve judgement on it while the intrigue in the Saudi Arabian court plays out.

The mainstream media meanwhile, will continue to push a narrative about the Khashoggi murder that lacks nuance, or indeed, a competent understanding of Middle Eastern politics.

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Lachlann Tierney
Lachlann Tierney is a writer for The Australian Tribune. He has a background in politics, public policy and has studied at London School of Economics. Lachlann is interested in small government, tertiary education matters and energy policy.
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