All Alone Now, the Saudis Will Entice Trump with Big Contracts
“After weeks of siding with the Saudi royals—and sending his secretary of state to grip-and-grin with the king—U.S. President Donald Trump finally bowed to public outrage on Thursday and pulled Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s dwindling ‘Davos in the Desert’ conference next week. They were the first indications that Trump may be siding with Turkish officials’ conclusion that Mohammed bin Salman and his security team are responsible for killing Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, on Oct. 2, an act that has left the Saudi regime almost totally isolated on the world stage.
But Washington officials and analysts say that Trump’s response is only the start of a fierce war of wills between Washington and Riyadh that could roil relations for months or even years. For the Saudis, the weapon of choice in this geopolitical struggle will be multibillion-dollar contracts and, to a lesser extent, oil; for the Americans, it will be weapons and technology. The Saudis, of course, are desperately hoping to avert this outcome, and so is Trump. A riled-up U.S. Congress, however, is unlikely to be easily appeased. Thus, as Mohammed bin Salman fights for his kingdom and possibly his crown, hundreds of billions of dollars in promised contracts with U.S. companies are at stake over the crisis precipitated by the killing of Khashoggi. Saudi experts say the crown prince will use this leverage to the hilt by dangling the possibility of withholding those deals, which Trump openly covets.
‘They clearly are threatening to do that,’ said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA career official who has advised several presidents on Saudi-related issues. Riedel said that when Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—the administration’s main liaison to Mohammed bin Salman—and National Security Advisor John Bolton called the crown prince last week, what ensued was a tense exchange that centered on just such possibilities. ‘My understanding is that was very difficult conversation. Mohammed bin Salman essentially threatened that if you try to sanction us, we will strike back. Of course, a lot of that is completely bluff. He cannot buy a Russian engine and put it in an F-15. But there are other things he can do.’ Cutting oil exports—once the Saudi weapon of choice—is not as effective as it used to be, even though Saudi Arabia’s role as a major oil producer is crucial as Trump increases economic pressure on Iran. If Riyadh slashed oil exports, that would only hurt the Saudi economy the most when it can least afford it, at a time when Mohammed bin Salman is fighting an expensive war in Yemen; it would also accelerate the move of other nations, especially the United States, away from Saudi oil as an energy resource.”