The Hindu Business Line : AVIJIT GOEL: While Trump passes up a golden opportunity to deal the Shia and Sunni powers an equal hand Of all that is said about Donald Trump, one defining attribute (and probably the key symptom) is his notoriously short attention span. Trump had famously accused the Saudi monarchy of being the largest funders of terrorism and had publicly declared that Saudi Arabia “funnels our petrodollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists”. But the first visit of President Trump to Riyadh had some interesting firsts in extravagant hosting, and a 180 degree turn by a president who would surprise if there were ever any consistency in his narrative.
The billions effect
Saudi Arabia is accused of surreptitiously or blatantly also exporting the Salafist ideology across a plethora of nations, from the swathes of Africa to Asia and Europe. In an influential book Crude World, Peter Maass has identified this as “the most expensive information campaign ever mounted”, far more directed and well-funded than any other. The ideology is listed in the Global Terrorist Database (GTB) as the “largest cause of terrorist attacks since 2010”.
Saudi Arabia firmed up arms deals and military cooperation spends exceeding $350 billion over the next 10 years ($110 billion of it immediately) with the US. Blame naiveté, approval-seeking or just love for a mega deal, these billions had their desired impact. Trump declared in Riyadh, “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror”.
He went on to add that “until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” He then inaugurated the Global Centre for Combating Extremism, headquartered in Riyadh.
This “landmark reset” in Saudi-US relations was music to the nervous Saudi monarchy, which was frustrated by Barack Obama’s measured stance against their bête noire, Iran. Trump behaved exactly as the Saudi royals wanted him to, and in doing so, he passed up a historic opportunity — that of the US dealing the Sunni and Shia powers an equal hand, and playing a stellar statesman role in the readjustment of decades of imbalance.
The businessman in Trump should know when he has had a bad deal. The US passing up on Iran now does not mean that Iran is bereft of support. The signatories to the deal are watching. In a beleaguered global economy, Iran buying your merchandise is quite an economic tailwind, something that China amongst others would leverage.
Also, according to Nick Butler, a former vice-president at BP, the US does not need Saudi oil anymore. The 1.1 million barrels/day being imported by the US from Saudi Arabia (about 10 per cent of US needs) can be easily replaced by a multitude of cheaper suppliers. (Speaking of reducing dependence on Saudi oil, Iraq replaced Saudi as the top oil supplier to India just a week ago.)
The irony of Trump’s bonhomie with the absolute monarchs of a kingdom was that, just across, on the same day, Iran had a ballot election (globally recognised as free and fair), which re-elected the reformist and balanced Hassan Rouhani as president. That the Iranians gave the moderate Rouhani a decisive mandate clearly indicated their intention to re-integrate with the global order and their increasing distaste with the narrative of the Islamic hardliner, Ebrahim Raisi. The post-revolution generation of Iranians have made their choices clear — and the key point is that they can exercise their choice, unlike a Saudi citizen who’s never seen a ballot box. Iran today stands taller and more consistent in its narrative compared to Trump’s US.
The Saudis might have won an immediate PR battle with Trump’s patronising speech, but the fundamentals of the Iranian economy, the mature choices of its citizens, and the reduced importance of US support to a global order might just be a rude awakening for the monarchy. Sooner than later.
The writer heads new country development at Marico. The views are personal