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Business as usual for Trump and the Saudis

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Just like every other right-thinking, virtue-signalling big mouth here in the US, I am appalled – appalled! – at President Donald Trump’s refusal to call out that thuggish Prince Mohammed bin Salman over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

But my righteous anger just can’t get seem to get airborne.

The thing is, Mr Trump’s coddling of this particular despot, unlike the customary butt-kissing of bad guys so unique to his presidency, has plenty of precedence rooted in decades of US-Saudi relations.

While the circumstances around Mr Khashoggi are particularly gruesome, US presidents have been making excuses and looking the other way with the Saudis since the 1970s.

Mr Trump is just keeping up appearances.

To understand the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, one must go back to the the oil crisis of 1973.

I can remember sitting in our barge-sized Oldsmobile station wagon as my mother inched forward in hours-long petrol lines, petroleum punishment from oil-producing Arab states (Saudi Arabia chief among them) for our support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

The shock, and the powerlessness, was acutely felt in a country still stinging from our defeat in Vietnam and facing the political uncertainty of Watergate. From then on, it became standard American policy to keep the Saudis on side in order to keep them from raising oil prices or cutting production.   

Thus, in the American imagination, Saudi Arabia became an eccentric, wily and mildly mercurial ally, a place with medieval customs and oil billions.

Quiet and stalwart, the Saudi royal family were depicted as steadfast friends with a fondness for bling.

Much was made of their long-standing relationships with American officials, particularly the Bush family, who seemed unusually, almost secretly close to Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar, who served in Washington DC for more than 20 years. (It was, in part, on Saudi Arabia’s behalf the the US entered the first Gulf War in Kuwait in the early 1990s.)

That image as friend, however incomplete, was burnished by external events in the region.

Saudi Arabia was helped immeasurably in 1980, when Iranian students took American hostages in the US embassy in Tehran. It is hard to overstate the rage and impotence in the US during the year-long crisis.

The flag-burning, the Great Satan speeches from Ayatollah Khomeini, remain seared in the American consciousness. And while the US has managed to make peace with former enemies from Germany to Nicaragua, Iran remains an enemy to most Americans.

That’s why it was easy for Mr Trump to bail out of the Iran nuclear deal; It’s still hard to find ordinary people eager to do business with that Islamic theocracy. And all for the better for Saudi Arabia, of course, Iran’s sworn regional enemy.

This dynamic of oil dependency and regional containment has allowed the Saudis to get away, literally, with murder.

The Saudi government’s connection to the 9/11 bombers – 15 of the 19 were Saudi, as was Osama bin Laden – has never been fully aired publicly, thanks to successive US administrations’ refusal to release key secret documents.

The kingdom’s embrace of extremist Islam in the wake of the Iranian revolution and its criminal justice practices – beheadings, beatings, amputations, flogging – are frowned upon here in the US, but essentially ignored.

The Prince’s ongoing war in Yemen, where a famine is threatening hundreds of thousands, is on today’s front page of The New York Times, but barely registers in the US public consciousness.

Instead, last spring, the US press became obsessed with Prince MbS and his cross-country PR tour. As the dashing prince met with politicians, Hollywood celebs and tech moguls, the press was full of panting accounts about the New Saudi Arabia. Women can drive! They’re opening movie theatres!

The nadir was a fawning column by The New York Times’ foreign affairs columns Thomas Friedman, who swallowed MbS promises of reform with barely a hint of journalistic skepticism.

So the head-snapping change of tone these past few weeks can only confuse many Americans.

Suddenly it seems, the commentariat wonders why we coddle these robed rogues. After all, we produce our own energy now and don’t need worry about upsetting the Saudis. And why should we side with them over the Iranians? Aren’t we just taking a side in a regional feud with no good guys?

Mr Trump, not surprisingly, has other reasons to side with the Saudis.  

A supposed $110 billion arms deal (the precise deal remains very squishy, experts say) would be hard to walk away from, Trump has said. That’s why he seemed ready to accept the Saudi government’s explanation of Mr Khashoggi’s death – a tale with more changing explanations than Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition.

And then there’s this. “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” Mr Trump saidat a rally in Alabama in 2015. “Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

For a guy who wouldn’t even donate to his own charity, that’s a pretty persuasive policy, don’t you think?

But seriously, to expect a man so morally rudderless as Mr Trump to defy decades of US pandering – by the government and the press – is even more delusional than usual. The only thing notable here is Mr Trump’s adherence, so far, to the sad status quo.

For once, I’m wishing his impetuousness will get the best of him.

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