The US President Donald Trump must be a man with a queer sense of humour. He kept the call to King Salman of Saudi Arabia pending for his announcement on Friday to fully sink in – to the effect that the Saudi citizens will be subject to “extreme vetting” before being allowed to enter America.
Trump singled out Saudi Arabia as the only GCC country to be treated badly like this, on par with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Finally, Trump made the call to Salman on Saturday. One would have liked to be a fly on the wall in the Oval Office. From all accounts, neither side showed fluster. The conversation was smooth as silk.
Salman is the Custodian of the Two Holy Places, and yet he didn’t raise the issue of Trump’s Muslim ban, which has created a world-wide uproar, including among non-believers.
Not only that, the accounts of the conversation suggest that Trump’s main purpose was to demand that Saudi Arabia should fund the ‘safe zones’ in Syria and Yemen – yes, Yemen, too, where the Saudis have been involved in a war of destruction. Simply put, Trump pricked the Saudi pride and 24 hours later asked Riyadh for money. Apparently, Salman agreed.
Thereupon, Trump and Salman agreed on the importance of making ‘joint efforts’ to erase the Islamic State from the face of the earth. The White House readout says,
The president requested, and the King agreed, to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts.
The Saudi press agency initially omitted any reference to Salman’s commitment on the ‘safe zones’, but later put out an amended version to say, “The custodian of the Two Holy Mosques had confirmed his support and backing for setting up safe zones in Syria.” It nonetheless did not mention Yemen, where a Saudi alliance is waging a bloody military campaign against the Houthi group.
The Saudi version emphasised that Salman and Trump affirmed the “depth and durability of the strategic relationship” between the two countries. For Salman, it is crucially important to proclaim that Trump intends to continue with the strategic ties with Saudi Arabia. His main worry would be that without Trump’s support, Iran will steal a march over Saudi Arabia as the dominant Muslim power in the Middle East.
Curiously, Salman went on to invite Trump “to lead a Middle East effort to defeat terrorism and to help build a new future, economically and socially.” Plainly put, Saudi Arabia is petrified about a US retrenchment from the Middle East and is willing to overlook anything – even the humiliating blow of Trump’s Muslim ban – if only the American troops stayed on.
Salman’s fawning attitude in the face of Trump’s Muslim ban will put the Ummah in a quandary. Logically, Saudi Arabia ought to have reacted strongly in the same unequivocal manner in which Iran has reacted. No sooner than Trump announced a travel ban on Iranian nationals, Tehran imposed a reciprocal ban on US citizens. A foreign ministry statement said in Tehran on Saturday,
Herein lies the secret of the western hegemony over Muslim Middle East. The bizarre truth is that the Gulf Arab regimes relish criticizing the US’s policies but cannot live without US military support because without that support they would collapse like a pack of cards. Besides, the Saudi elites keep their illegal private wealth in western banks and they own vast properties and business interests in the US. They travel to the US for fun as a permissive home away from their Wahhabi environs. In sum, they simply cannot afford to uphold self-respect and dignity as norms in their dealings with the Americans.
To be sure, Trump has put fear into the Saudi mind. What worries Salman most is Trump’s earlier stance that if the families of the victims of 9/11 attacks seek compensation from Saudi Arabia, he wouldn’t stand in the way. The finger has been pointed at important figures in the House of Saud for complicity in the 9/11 attacks.
But the Iranians have no such problem. They can insist on equal relationship and mutual respect from Washington because they owe Trump nothing. I can only echo Pakistani politician Imran Khan’s stirring call: “’Iran is an independent nation and other (Muslim) nations need to follow Iran against foreign pressures.” But then, Khan Saheb is asking too much.