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Donald Trump ‘Covers Up’ Riyadh

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The dynamics of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and Washington’s plans to once again ramp up sanctions on Russia reflect the military-political and financial-economic factors underlying the Trump Administration’s foreign policy. The key aspects of President Donald Trump’s “business approach” are the lack of clear-cut, principled and comprehensive rules of the game and prioritization of specific trade and economic gains while politically downplaying areas that do not promise immediate financial bonuses and, therefore, can be sacrificed to domestic political considerations and hang-ups.

Suffice it to mention Washington’s response to the international scandal associated with the October 2 death of the Saudi opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish authorities blamed the journalist’s disappearance on a group of Saudi nationals. In wasn’t until October 20 that Saudi Arabia finally admitted Khashoggi’s death at its consulate, adding that he had died as a result of a “conflict.” Al Ekhbariya TV channel quoted Saudi Arabia’s Attorney General as saying that Jamal Khashoggi died “in a fight with people who were in the building” of the Saudi consulate.

Immediately after getting word about the disappearance of a Saudi journalist, US President Donald Trump, in his usual manner, threatened to “severely punish” Riyadh if the reports of Mr. Khashoggi’s murder were confirmed. However, just a few days later, Trump, without waiting for the results of the ongoing investigation and even before Khashoggi’s body was found, suddenly toned down his statements.

After a telephone linkup with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Trump suggested that the journalist could have been killed by “certain people” without Riyadh’s knowledge, since the Saudi monarch “assured” him that he was completely unaware of the incident. The next day, on October 16, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet the King and Crown Prince Mohammed Ibn Salman. After the meeting, the US State Department issued a statement thanking the Saudi monarch for his “desire to help in a thorough, transparent and timely investigation into the disappearance” of Jamal Khashoggi.

Still, the incident split the political elite of the United States with a separate investigation into the circumstances of the incident launched by the Senate, and a number of Congressmen demanding severe sanctions against Riyadh, including a ban on the sale of US arms.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration clearly wants to stand up for Riyadh, even at the expense of alienating some members of Congress.

Trump has already made it clear that an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia is out of the question because such contracts are too important for the United States. Saudi Arabia is the first foreign country Donald Trump went to after his election. Following the talks, the sides inked a ten-year deal for the sale of $350 billion worth of US arms to the kingdom, with contracts worth $110 billion meant for “immediate implementation.” The agreement provides for the sale of tanks, air defense systems, radar installations, military communications gear and cyber security technology.

It is clear, however, that, despite President Trump’s efforts, US-Saudi relations will come under strong pressure in the United States itself.

In March, a proposal to suspend the implementation of arms deals with Saudi Arabia over Riyadh’s poor human rights record and its support for radical Islamists in the Middle East was put to the vote in the US Senate with 44 Senators voting for a freeze and 55 voting against.

However, according to The Wall Street Journal, many Senators, who previously supported Riyadh, have recently been reconsidering their position.  The newspaper cites Senator Lindsay Graham as saying that Crown Prince Salman, who has concentrated in his hands all the key levers of power in Saudi Arabia, is “too toxic a figure. He can never be a leader on the world stage.”

“Mohammed bin Salman  had paid millions of dollars to create a specific image of himself, and Jamal Khashoggi destroyed all this with just a few words,” Saudi journalist Azham Tamimi said in an interview with The New York Times.

In addition to major arms sales with Saudi Arabia which, according to the White House, will help create about 450,000 new jobs in the US, interdependence in oil is another reason why Washington does not intend to have a serious conflict with Riyadh. Currently, the United States is importing 800,000 barrels of Saudi oil a day and the Saudis have already hinted that they will reduce or even stop oil sales to the US if Washington attempts to impose sanctions on it. In this event, according to the most conservative estimates, the United States would lose about 5 percent of its energy resources.

Moreover, cooperation with Saudi Arabia in oil has a deeper geopolitical significance for the United States, because it allows Washington to exert influence on the world oil market and OPEC.

The United States “is getting used to the role of a regulator of the world oil market,” Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin said in his report to the Eurasian Economic Forum in Verona, Italy.According to him, the Trump Administration proceeds from “far from impartial” interests and uses “absolutely non-market methods” in an effort to secure its own financial and economic interests.

“Moreover, the US wants to become a major oil exporter. We are essentially talking about the emergence of a US-PEC structure, especially when we have in mind the impact of the recent events on the scope of relations between the US and Saudi Arabia, which are hard to overestimate,” Sechin emphasized.

Also important is the “Iranian factor” and the Turkish aspect in the US foreign policy. The Trump Administration does not want to undermine Saudi Arabia’s position as Tehran’s main adversary in the Middle East and play up to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is competing with the Saudis for leadership in the Islamic world. Erdogan has already said that what is now happening to Saudi Arabia only proves that Turkey is “the only country, which can lead the Muslim world.

The Washington Post hit the nail on the head when it wrote that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has changed the power balance in the Middle East.

According to available information, in the course of the tense US-Saudi diplomatic contacts of the past few days, the Trump Administration has been trying to persuade Riyadh to come up with a mutually acceptable formula to ease the scandal around the disappearance of the opposition-minded journalist and avoid endangering the strategic cooperation between the two countries. It was Washington’sscenario whereby the Saudi authorities acknowledge the death of Jamal Khashoggi during an interrogation at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul but blame it all on some Saudi intelligence agencies going too far. The impression is that Donald Trump is “helping cover up for Riyadh,” former CIA analyst told The Financial Times.

The White House’s stance on an event that grabbed international attention clearly contrasts with its obsessive desire to slap ever new sanctions on Russia for Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and its equally unproved role in the recent poisoning incidents in Britain.

By covering up Riyadh, the Trump Administration proceeds primarily from financial and economic considerations, while by increasing pressure on Russia under far-fetched pretexts, it seeks to bolster its own positions ahead of next month’s mid-term Congressional elections.

Under the present circumstances, Russia has rightfully assumed a restrained position with regard to what is happening inside the Saudi-US-Turkey triangle, while simultaneously trying to safeguard its own interests. During their October 25 telephone exchange, President Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud discussed further bilateral cooperation, including in energy.  According to the Kremlin press service, the two “exchanged views on the conflict in Syria and the situation in the Middle East, as well as the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” The Saudi monarch reiterated his invitation for the Russian leader to visit the kingdom.

Vladimir Putin and Saudi king last met in Moscow in October 2017. During the visit, the two countries signed an agreement which, among other things, envisaged the establishment of a joint foundation by the Russian Direct Investment Fund and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF).

Russia and Saudi Arabia can build up their economic cooperation against the backcloth of Western companies’ refusal to participate in Saudi projects.

Saudi Arabia and Western companies planned to ink a raft of multibillion contracts at the three-day Future Investment Initiative international forum, which opened on October 23 in Riyadh. However, the IMF and World Bank executives, the leaders of JPMorgan Chase, Credit Suisse, Standard Chartered, BlackRock, EL Rothschild, Blackstone, Uber, Ford Motor, as well as Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Richard Branson, who was going to sign an agreement with Riyadh, backed off on the  construction and launch of high-speed vacuum trains in Saudi Arabia.

With Western businessmen absent from the investment forum, Russia’s active participation in it, as well as China’s readiness to latch on to a number of relevant projects in Saudi Arabia, was not lost on Riyadh.

Therefore, it was agreed that the sovereign investment fund of Saudi Arabia would invest $500 million into the Russian-Chinese Investment Fund (RCIF), jointly created by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) and the China Investment Corporation, to bring the RCIF’s capital to $2.5 billion.

“Three leading sovereign funds are coming together to jointly implement investment projects. Such an arrangement will not only bring together the expertise of investors in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, but will also allow the fund’s portfolio companies to simultaneously receive support in several key markets,” the Russian Direct Investment Fund’s head Kirill Dmitriev said. He added that the Russian-Chinese Investment Fund (RCIF) would now be renamed the Russian-Chinese-Saudi Investment Fund.

Kirill Dmitriev also said that Riyadh was ready to invest around $5 billion into the construction of NOVATEK Company’s Arctic LNG 2 liquefied gas production plant, as proposed by the new Saudi Arabian Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih.

All this is in Russia’s best interest both in terms of strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region, and of a further diversification of their own trade, economic and foreign policy priorities.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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Indictment of Trump associate threatens UAE lobbying success

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This month’s indictment of a billionaire, one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the United Arab Emirates highlights the successes and pitfalls of a high-stakes Emirati effort to influence US policy.

The indictment of businessman Thomas  J. Barrack, who maintained close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed while serving as an influential advisor in 2016 to then-presidential candidate Trump and chair of Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee once he won the 2016 election, puts at risk the UAE’s relationship with the Biden administration.

It also threatens to reduce the UAE’s return on a massive investment in lobbying and public relations that made it a darling in Washington during the last four years.

A 2019 study concluded that Emirati clients hired 20 US lobbying firms to do their bidding at a cost of US$20 million, including US$600,000 in election campaign contributions — one of the largest, if not the largest expenditure by a single state on Washington lobbying and influence peddling.

The indictment further raises the question of why the Biden administration was willing to allow legal proceedings to put at risk its relationship with one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, one that last year opened the door to recognition of Israel by Arab and Muslim-majority states.

The UAE lobbying effort sought to position the Emirates, and at its behest, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed’s counterpart, Mohammed bin Salman, at the heart of US policy, ensure that Emirati and Saudi interests were protected, and shield the two autocrats from criticism of various of their policies and abuse of human rights.

Interestingly, UAE lobbying in the United States, in contrast to France and Austria, failed to persuade the Trump administration to embrace one of the Emirates’ core policy objectives: a US crackdown on political Islam with a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed views political Islam and the Brotherhood that embraces the principle of elections as an existential threat to the survival of his regime.

In one instance cited in the indictment, Mr. Barrack’s two co-defendants, a UAE national resident in the United States, Rashid Al-Malik, and Matthew Grimes, a Barrack employee, discussed days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the possibility of persuading the new administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a designated foreign terrorist organization. “This will be a huge win. If we can list them. And they deserved to be,” Mr. Al-Malik texted Mr. Grimes on 23 January 2017.

The unsuccessful push for designating the Brotherhood came three months after Mr. Barrack identified the two Prince Mohammeds in an op-ed in Fortune magazine as members of a new generation of “brilliant young leaders.” The billionaire argued that “American foreign policy must persuade these bold visionaries to lean West rather than East… By supporting their anti-terrorism platforms abroad, America enhances its anti-terrorism policies at home.”

Mr. Barrack further sought to persuade America’s new policymakers, in line with Emirati thinking, that the threat posed by political Islam emanated not only from Iran’s clerical regime and its asymmetric defence and security policies but also from the Brotherhood and Tukey’s Islamist government. He echoed Emirati promotion of Saudi Arabia after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman as the most effective bulwark against political Islam.

“It is impossible for the US to move against any hostile Islamic group anywhere in the world without Saudi support…. The confused notion that Saudi Arabia is synonymous with radical Islam is falsely based on the Western notion that ‘one size fits all,’ Mr. Barrack asserted.

The Trump administration’s refusal to exempt the Brotherhood from its embrace of Emirati policy was the likely result of differences within both the US government and the Muslim world. Analysts suggest that some in the administration feared that designating the Brotherhood would empower the more rabidly Islamophobic elements in Mr. Trump’s support base.

Administration officials also recognized that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt constituted a minority, albeit a powerful minority, in the Muslim world that was on the warpath against the Brotherhood.

Elsewhere, Brotherhood affiliates were part of the political structure by either participating in government or constituting part of the legal opposition in countries like Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Indonesia.

The affiliates have at times supported US policies or worked closely with US allies like in the case of Yemen’s Al Islah that is aligned with Saudi-backed forces.

In contrast to UAE efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood is crushed at the risk of fueling Islamophobia, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim organization which shares the Emirates’ rejection of political Islam and the Brotherhood, has opted to fight the Brotherhood’s local Indonesian affiliate politically within a democratic framework rather than by resorting to coercive tactics.

Nahdlatul Ulama prides itself on having significantly diminished the prospects of Indonesia’s Brotherhood affiliate, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), since the 2009 presidential election. The group at the time successfully drove a wedge between then-President Susilo Yudhoyono, and the PKS, his coalition partner since the 2004 election that brought him to power. In doing so, it persuaded Mr. Yudhoyono to reject a PKS candidate as vice president in the second term of his presidency.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s manoeuvring included the publication of a book asserting that the PKS had not shed its links to militancy. The party has since failed to win even half of its peak 38 seats in parliament garnered in the 2004 election.

“Publication of ‘The Illusion of an Islamic State: The Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesia’ had a considerable impact on domestic policy. It primarily contributed to neutralizing one candidate’s bid for vice president in the 2009 national election campaign, who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said militancy expert Magnus Ranstorp.

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