Fire & Fury in The Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be well advised to reconsider their embrace of Trump

By Abdel Bari Atwan

American journalist Michael Wolff’s insider view of the Trump White House, Fire and Fury, has caused an international sensation. The book could end up playing a major role in the eventual downfall of the US president, and his ejection from his post on the grounds that he is not competent to hold it.

The ‘deep state’ in the US seems to have decided that the time has come to wage war on the incumbent president, and use all its available heavy weapons to defeat him. That explains the book’s citing of over 200 figures in the president’s entourage to discredit him, most notably its use of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and close confidant, who engineered his election victory but was fired by him a few months later, as spearhead of the mounting campaign to depose him.

What matters most to us Middle Easterners are the revelations contained in the book about Trump’s policies toward and thinking about our region, to which there are several references.

The two most significant of these are:

First, Bannon’s revelation that Trump was behind the coup staged in Saudi Arabia on 20 June 2017, when Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Nayef was deposed in favour of King Salman’s son Muhammad. Bannon reported that Trump told his friends that he and his son-in-law Jared Kushner engineered this putsch, which placed ‘their man’ at the pinnacle of power in the kingdom.

Secondly, Bannon’s boast that he was behind Trump’s proposed ‘deal’ on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which precludes the establishment of a Palestinian state, starts with the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and proceeds to transfer control of the West Bank to Jordan and the Gaza Strip to Egypt, while annexing the settlements to Israel and upholding an exclusively Jewish identity for Jerusalem.

It is striking that two principal players were pivotal to the formulation of this US policy in the region: Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman and Jared Kushner. They held numerous meetings, both public and secret, to thrash out their understandings and translate them into practical plans – notably by hastening the pace of normalization between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Israeli occupation state. It seems clear that there is a link between these two occurrences: American acceptance of the putsch in Saudi Arabia in return for Saudi promotion and marketing of the ‘deal of the century’.

Muhammad Bin-Salman has doubtless been informed of every mention that was made of him in Wolff’s book. No statements have been issued on his behalf denying any of the claims, whether those related to his takeover of power in Saudi Arabia, or his involvement in the deal surrendering Jerusalem to the Israelis, moving the US embassy there, and ceding the remainder of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Jordan and Egypt respectively. Riyadh’s continued failure to deny these claims may effectively amount to confirmation of them.

Muhammad Bin-Salman is known to have established a close friendship with Kushner. He summoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh twice in quick succession to brief him on details of the deal and urge him to accept it and forget about occupied Jerusalem. It is said that Abbas was offered $10 billion as a ‘reward’ should he acquiesce.

Bannon, meanwhile, reportedly advised that both Saudi Arabia and Egypt were on the verge of collapse, and could be easily made to do Washington’s bidding by employing its influence, plus that of its Israeli ally, and raising the spectre of the Iranian threat (and, in Egypt’s case, that of Ethiopia’s Nahdha Dam on the upper reaches of the River Nile).

If the Saudi and Egyptian states are indeed facing collapse, that in our view would be as a consequence of the advice and counsel provided to them by the Trump administration itself – as conveyed by Kushner, possibly under the direction of his allies in Tel Aviv. It is evident that most of this advice and counsel has had disastrous economic and political consequences for the recipients, whether in plunging Saudi Arabia into an unwinnable war in Yemen, or locking Egypt into a confrontation with Ethiopia and diminishing its once formidable influence in the Red Sea region.

The potential implosion of the Trump administration cannot fail to have consequences for the two Arab regimes it has counted on most – Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It may be wise for both to reconsider their calculations, and abandon the sinking ship before it is too late – if only to save themselves and minimize their losses.

But it is doubtful that either will do that. We can only wait and see.