Isranet Daily Briefing: U.S.- Saudi Relations : Are Real Changes Afoot? (June 11, 2019)




President Donald Trump walks with Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, along with the West Colonnade of the White House, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. (Source: Wikipedia)

Trump Should Salvage U.S. – Saudi RelationsJohn Hannah, Foreign Policy, Mar. 27, 2019
Exclusive:  US Intel Shows Saudi Arabia Escalated Its Missile Program with Help from China: Phil Mattingly, Zachary Cohen and Jeremy Herb, CNN, June 5, 2019
Saudi Oil in Iran’s Crosshairs: Simon Henderson, Washington Institute, May 14, 2019
The Scramble for Jerusalem:  Adnan Abu Amer, Al Jazeera, May 11, 2019

Trump Should Salvage U.S.-Saudi Relations
John Hannah
Foreign Policy, Mar. 27, 2019

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is in real trouble. And things could get worse—even much worse.

Bipartisan majorities in Congress have already made clear their desire to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a long series of transgressions, including the kingdom’s role in Yemen’s catastrophic civil war and the murder of dissident U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. These efforts will only intensify as the 2020 U.S. presidential election cycle ramps up. For the ever-expanding list of Democratic aspirants, the temptation to outdo each other in attacking President Donald Trump’s close links to the kingdom’s leadership will be nearly irresistible. It’s a truism of U.S. politics that there’s no downside to Saudi bashing. That’s doubly true today, with the controversial Mohammed bin Salman at the helm, and with talk of the use of bone saws on journalists, the detention and torture of U.S. citizens, and the abuse of women’s rights activists dominating the headlines. Even if Congress falls short of getting any new anti-Saudi legislation passed the president’s veto, the constant drip, month after month, of hearings, bills, and public criticism targeting the kingdom risks doing serious long-term damage to the two countries’ strategic relationship.

It’s true, that there’s a lot of ruin in U.S.-Saudi ties. The relationship has endured oil boycotts, the 9/11 attacks (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals), and more than 70 years of constant clashing of cultures and values. The national interests that have bound Washington and Riyadh together through the decades, despite their deep differences, remain formidable. But real changes are now afoot in the underlying dynamics of the relationship. They should at minimum give pause to anyone who blithely assumes that there’s no amount of public derision that the United States could heap on the kingdom that might put the broader U.S.-Saudi partnership at risk, and the Trump administration should take notice.

One such change is the rapid rise of Saudi nationalism—especially among the country’s large youth population. As part of his reform agenda for transforming the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman has consciously sought to build a new sense of identity among Saudis, grounded in nationalism rather than Wahhabism, the fundamentalist religious sect that served as an ideological gateway for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. While largely a positive development, the nationalist tide could have a double edge, as I learned on an Atlantic Council trip to Riyadh in February.

It was striking how many researchers, activists, and government officials in Riyadh seemed defensive, resentful, and even angry when asked about the United States. “We’re getting sick and tired of having our country reduced to its worst mistakes,” one woman said, referring to the Khashoggi tragedy. Another said, “Thanks to the crown prince, the lives of millions of women are being positively transformed in ways that our mothers couldn’t even dream of. If the United States can’t appreciate the historical importance of what’s happening here, and chooses to focus only on our faults and trying to change our leadership, then you’re hurting our cause—and I’ll oppose you.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]


Exclusive: US Intel Shows Saudi Arabia Escalated its Missile Program with Help from China
Phil Mattingly, Zachary Cohen and Jeremy Herb
CNN, June 5, 2019

The US government has obtained intelligence that Saudi Arabia has significantly escalated its ballistic missile program with the help of China, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter said, a development that threatens decades of US efforts to limit missile proliferation in the Middle East.
The Trump administration did not initially disclose its knowledge of this classified development to key members of Congress, the sources said, infuriating Democrats who discovered it outside of regular US government channels and concluded it had been deliberately left out of a series of briefings where they say it should have been presented. The previously unreported classified intelligence indicates Saudi Arabia has expanded both its missile infrastructure and technology through recent purchases from China.

The discovery of the Saudi efforts has heightened concerns among members of Congress over a potential arms race in the Middle East, and whether it signals a tacit approval by the Trump administration as it seeks to counter Iran. The intelligence also raises questions about the administration’s commitment to non-proliferation in the Middle East and the extent to which Congress is kept abreast of foreign policy developments in a volatile region. The development comes amid growing tensions between Congress and the White House over Saudi Arabia.

Despite bipartisan criticism over the Kingdom’s war in Yemen and its role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the White House has sought an even closer relationship with the Saudis, as evidenced by its recent decision to sell the Kingdom billions of dollars in weapons and munitions despite opposition in Congress. While the Saudis’ ultimate goal has not been conclusively assessed by US intelligence, the sources said, the missile advancement could mark another step in potential Saudi efforts to one day deliver a nuclear warhead were it ever to obtain one. The Kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, has made clear that should Iran obtain a nuclear weapon, Saudi would work to do the same, telling 60 Minutes in a 2018 interview that, “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

Though Saudi is among the biggest buyers of US weapons, it is barred from purchasing ballistic missiles from the US under regulations set forth by the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal, multi-country pact aimed at preventing the sale of rockets capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Yet the Saudis have consistently taken the position that they need to match Iran’s missile capability and have at times sought help on the side from other countries, including China, which is not a signatory to the pact.
Saudi Arabia is known to have purchased ballistic missiles from China several decades ago, and public reports speculated that more purchases may have been made as recently as 2007. The Kingdom has never been assessed to have the ability to build its own missiles or even effectively deploy the ones it does have. Instead, the Saudis’ arsenal of Chinese-made ballistic missiles was a way to signal its potential military strength to regional foes, primarily Iran. That, the sources told CNN, has shifted based on the new intelligence. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]


Saudi Oil in Iran’s Crosshairs
Simon Henderson
Washington Institute, May 14, 2019

Early in the morning of May 14, drones flying about 500 miles from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen attacked two pumping stations on Saudi Arabia’s major East-West Pipeline. Officials in various quarters quickly asserted that the incident had been orchestrated by Iran, which has been supporting the Houthi rebels in their war against the internationally recognized Yemeni government and its coalition partners in Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates. Iranian involvement is also suspected in the May 12 attacks on four tankers anchored in UAE waters near Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman.

If these accusations prove true, the tactically simple but strategically momentous attacks would be Tehran’s apparent response to the recent U.S. deployment of a carrier strike group, B-52 bombers, and other forces to the region—a decision that was itself spurred by newly identified Iranian threats and the Trump administration’s desire to further curtail the regime’s oil exports. Iran’s longstanding position is that if it cannot sell oil via its only export route, the Strait of Hormuz, then no other country will be permitted to do so either. The choice of targets seems like Tehran’s way of reminding Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that they are vulnerable despite their American security umbrella—both the East-West Pipeline and the UAE line that terminates at Fujairah are major export routes that bypass the strait.

In all, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and their Persian Gulf neighbors Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman supply around 20 percent of the world’s daily oil needs. Their significance is even greater in terms of traded oil, particularly regarding their main markets in Asia. So far, the incidents have had little impact on oil prices, probably because of ongoing economic uncertainty surrounding the difficult U.S.-China trade talks. But a direct military confrontation would lead to a spike.

The chances of such escalation are currently unclear because few public details have been released about the drone and tanker incidents. The Saudi oil minister stated that one facility had been set on fire by a drone, and the pipeline has been shut down for repairs. Any confirmation of Iranian origins behind the drones would escalate the crisis to some degree. Iranian fingerprints in Fujairah would stoke tensions as well. The photographic evidence released so far has shown a Norwegian tanker holed in the stern at the waterline, likely by a significant explosive charge; repairs may take months. The damage to the two Saudi tankers and smaller UAE refueling vessel has not been shown.

Speedily increasing security measures is no guarantee of preventing further attacks. The Saudi vessels were anchored many miles offshore in an area teeming with other ships waiting for bunkering as well as smaller craft. And the Houthi drones probably flew undetected because Saudi radars tend to be more focused on aircraft or missile attacks. (In June 2017, Houthi forces fired an Iranian Qiam ballistic missile at Yanbu, the East-West Pipeline’s Red Sea terminal; another seven missile attacks were launched at Riyadh between November 2017 and June 2018.) … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]


The Scramble for Jerusalem
Adnan Abu Amer
Al Jazeera, May 11, 2019

Recent foreign policy decisions by the United States have opened yet another chapter in the long history of the competition for the guardianship over Islam’s holiest places. After the US recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there, the question of who gets to control the holy sites in the city (the third holiest in Islam after Mecca and Medina) has come to the fore.
Currently, King Abdullah II of Jordan is the custodian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in occupied Jerusalem, but there are growing speculations that the “deal of the century”, which the Trump administration has promised would offer a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, might usher in the transfer of guardianship to the House of Saud.

In March, King Abdullah hinted at the ongoing tensions between Amman and Riyadh over the issue by saying that he had been put under pressure to change his position on occupied Jerusalem. Then in April, King Mohammed VI of Morocco also stepped into the fray by announcing a grant of an undisclosed amount to be made available for the restoration of Al-Aqsa Mosque and its compound – a first of its kind for the past many years.

Apart from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and now Morocco, Turkey is also seemingly vying for influence in Jerusalem. All four have historical claims to leadership in the Muslim world and all four seem intent on playing a major role in the future of the holy city.

Old rivalries

It is not the first time that the House of Saud and the House of Hashim have clashed over Islam’s holy sites. King Abdullah’s ancestors, the Hashemites, who are considered to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, ruled Mecca for centuries before they were deposed by the Saudis. In the 1920s, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the father of Saudi King Salman, challenged the rule of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the great-great-grandfather of King Abdullah in Mecca and the whole of the Hijaz region (the westernmost part of modern Saudi Arabia), eventually defeating his forces and expelling the Hashemites from the holy city.
Two of Sharif Hussein’s sons established monarchies in Iraq and Transjordan with the help of Britain, but only the latter has survived to this day. The Jordanian monarchy acquired the custodianship over Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in 1924 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled over Palestine for centuries.

Both the Hashemites and the Saudis also share historical animosity against the Ottomans. In 1517, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I took control of Mecca and Medina and solidified the Ottoman claim to the caliphate; the Hashemites were forced to pay him allegiance. Four centuries later, Sharif Hussein of Mecca led the Arab rebellion against the Ottomans, aided by the British Empire. The Saudis, too, clashed with Ottoman forces throughout the 19th century and early 20th century, as they tried to expand territories under their control. Although the caliphate was dissolved and the Ottoman Empire transformed into a secular republic in 1924, in recent years the Turkish government has sought to regain a leadership position within the Muslim world.

Despite the fact that the Moroccan Alaouite dynasty was a distant observer to this struggle between the Ottomans, the Saudis and the Hashemites over Islam’s holiest sites, it, nevertheless, managed to develop and maintain a special relationship with Jerusalem, as well. The ancestors of King Mohammed VI who, like the Hashemites, traced their lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, supported the holy sites in the city and its inhabitants for centuries. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

On Topic Links

Saudi Arabia and Iran After The Summits Of Discontent:  Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera, June 4, 2019 — Saudi Arabia hosted three summits last week – a Gulf, an Arab and an Islamic one – with one common goal: Confront and isolate Iran. All other urgent issues in the region, from the ongoing decimation of Yemen to the implosion of Libya to the daily bombings in Syria and the worsening occupation of Palestine, all had to take a backseat to the Saudi-UAE escalation against the Islamic Republic.
Cheap Drones Are Changing The Calculus Of War In YemenJames Reinl, PRI, June 3, 2019 – This past month was no exception, with Houthi rebels repeatedly using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) against the Saudi Arabia-led coalition they are fighting.
The Saudi-Led Blockade Won’t End Anytime Soon But Qatar Has Moved On:  Ebrar Sahika Kucukasci, TRT World, May 20, 2019 — It’s been nearly two years since the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar and the blockading countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt have failed to achieve any of their objectives.
US senators seek to block Trump arms sales to Saudi ArabiaWilliam Roberts, Al Jazeera, June 5, 2019 —  A bipartisan group of seven influential United States senators said on Wednesday they intend to force congressional votes on 22 resolutions that would block President Donald Trump’s recently-announced sales of US weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).