LONDON — President Trump gave a speech this week grading his Asia trip. Not surprisingly, he thought it was a "tremendous success." "Our great country is respected again in Asia," he tweeted. All recent polling data from the region suggests the opposite. A core focus of Trump's trip was Japan and South Korea, but only 17 percent of South Koreans and 24 percent of Japanese express confidence in him, down from 88 percent and 78 percent who expressed confidence in President Barack Obama during his second term. Trump's rhetoric of self-interest and "America first" was seen by Asians as a sign of retreat, in contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping's more open, outward-looking and ambitious agenda.
However, Trump’s foreign policy faces a new challenge that could further disrupt the Middle East, already the most unstable part of the world. Trump has given the green light to an extraordinary series of moves in Saudi Arabia that can only be described as a revolution from above. Some of them suggest real and long-needed reforms. But all appear to have the risk of destabilizing Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia's new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has moved to consolidate power in all directions, jailing conservative clerics on the one hand and advocates of political reform on the other. His most recent targets have been some of the kingdom's most powerful princes, including the head of the National Guard as well as the billionaire investor Alwaleed bin Talal, on allegations of corruption. A senior Arab statesman and businessman told me the reasons given seem suspect. He said, "Every prince in Saudi Arabia has partaken in the institutionalized corruption that is embedded into the system. If this was really about corruption, Alwaleed is the last Saudi prince you would go after."
If fighting terrorism were a paramount concern, you would not humiliate Mohammed bin Nayef, who was crown prince until he was replaced by Mohammed bin Salman in June, and whose bank accounts have now been frozen. For the past decade, Mohammed bin Nayef worked closely with Washington in prosecuting the war against al-Qaeda and similar terrorist groups and was routinely and lavishly praised by American officials. But far from speaking out for this longtime ally, Trump actually tweeted his support for the purge, which has so far been carried out without specific charges or due process.
Saudi Arabia has historically rested on three pillars of stability. There's the royal family, a large loose group with 15,000 to 30,000 members, which has intermarried with a second pillar of Saudi society, the tribes. These two ally with the final pillar, the country's ultra-orthodox religious establishment, whose power has grown over the past four decades. Mohammed bin Salman has been saying the right things about religious moderation and has taken on all three pillars. In doing so, he is altering the very structure of the Saudi regime, from a patronage state based on consensus to a police state based on centralized control.
Time will tell whether it will work.
But the greater puzzle and danger is that while following this bold and risky domestic agenda, the crown prince has made a series of aggressive moves abroad. He has escalated Saudi intervention in Yemen, with bombing strikes and air, land and sea blockades. He has tried to quarantine Qatar, hoping to turn it into a submissive satellite state. He has apparently forced the Lebanese prime minister to resign, hoping to destabilize the Shiite-dominated government. All these are part of an effort to fight back against Iran's growing regional influence.
These are blunt tools for the complex challenge that is the Middle East. The Saudis are attempting to dislodge the Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah from its position of power in Lebanon and punish Qatar for its alleged ties to the group. But for several years, the Saudis and Americans have been in an unspoken alliance with Hezbollah against the Islamic State, which is being defeated largely by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias. Iran's influence has been nefarious in some areas and helpful in others.
In any event, the Saudi strategy does not seem to be working. The war in Yemen has turned into a disaster, creating a failed state on Saudi Arabia’s border that is seething with anger against Riyadh. Qatar has not surrendered and doesn’t seem likely to anytime soon. So far, the Shiites in Lebanon have acted responsibly, refusing to take the bait and plunge the country into civil war. But everywhere in the Middle East, tensions are rising, sectarianism is gaining ground and, with a couple of miscalculations or accidents, things could spiral out of control. With Trump so firmly supporting the Saudi strategy, the United States could find itself dragged further into the deepening Middle East morass.
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