By Emad Mekay
The image could have passed for a Harry Potter cover; three powerful leaders with hands on a creepy, lit miniature globe in a darkened room – US President Donald Trump was posing for a photo with two authoritarian Middle East rulers: King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
On a May 20-21 visit to Saudi Arabia, the US president had just vowed to improve ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia as the three leaders pledged an energised battle under US sponsorship of what they termed “extremist ideology”.
The message from the room was that the head of the world’s most powerful nation is now firmly behind notoriously harsh regimes in measures they take in the name of fighting extremism, a crusade that often turned into a justification for cracking down on opposition and broad abuse of human rights.
Immediately after Trump left the Middle East, the fruits of his visit started to bloom.
Cairo issued a new law regulating non-governmental organisations (NGOs), of which Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: “the law ushers in unprecedented levels of repression and will criminalise the work of many NGOs, making it impossible for them to function independently.”
A few days later, the el-Sisi government blocked access to 21 news websites for allegedly supporting terrorism, including Al-Jazeera and opposition sites like Al-Sharq. Independent news outlets like Mada Masr and Huffington Post Arabic were also targeted.
Saudi Arabia formed a new Middle East coalition and joined another US-backed regime in the UAE to launch a siege on Qatar, a country that has shown some opposition to Saudi hegemony in the region and urged a more conciliatory tone towards Riyadh’s arch-rival, Iran – positions that Washington under Trump has no stomach for.
“It seems that Qatar’s real crime is resisting the regional consensus forged with the United States under Donald J. Trump,” wrote Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. Cook said the move “pits American allies against American allies”.
The Qatar siege closed the borders with Saudi Arabia, the only land access for the small country and the main route for its food and medical supplies.
Ironically, Qatar is the seat of the Al-Udaid US military base, the main springboard for US military operations in the region. Operations from the Qatari base are behind the deaths of thousands of people, including civilians, around the Middle East. Yet, the Saudis had just made Trump a deal he could not refuse that made him willing to disregard Qatar’s services. Trump immediately backed the siege in his tweets and public statements.
The US president had just announced a lucrative 110 billion dollar arms transfer to Saudi Arabia – possibly as much as 350 billion dollars overall. The deal includes over 100,000 air-to-ground munitions, seven THAAD missile defence batteries and billions of dollars’ worth of new aircraft.
There was no public discussion of the impact this sale would have on people in Yemen, in its second year of a Saudi-led war, or on human rights issues.
Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, is on the brink of downright famine mostly as a result of the war. With 22 million people, Yemen is also a venue for thousands of refugees, including 255,000 Somalis, whose conditions have deteriorated as a result of devastated infrastructure and life under war.
Trump’s sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia will likely replenish the stockpiles of weapons the kingdom is using in its war in Yemen.
HRW has said that Saudi Arabia has repeatedly used US weapons in attacks that likely constitute war crimes. Last October, for example the Saudi Arabia-led coalition bombed a funeral hall in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, killing and wounding hundreds of people. Saudi officials deny the charges.
At home, with widespread and frequent violent crackdowns on dissent, Saudi Arabia is one of the most frequent users of state executions alongside China and Iran, according to the human rights group, Reprieve.
The Trump arms deals is part of a broader strategy to create a US-sponsored “Arab NATO”, a long-sought after military alliance designed to delegate some military operations from the US to Arab rulers and possibly help stand up to Iran’s regional over-reach.
Ever since King Salman came to office and appointed his favourite son, Mohammed, to run the defence department, Riyadh has upped its military involvement in the region in Yemen and Syria and increased backing for military governments around the Middle East.
With its vast oil wealth, the new US-backed Saudi posture has led to major instability in the region and the United Nations has said that instability in the region is the cause of the worst refugees crisis the world has witnessed since the Second World War.
Experts say the “Arab NATO” idea will further undermine the region, leading to even more hostile postures, not only by Saudi Arabia but also by its allies in the region such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
They also say the new Trump-sponsored coalition wants no less than a regime change not only in Syria – locked in a civil war since 2011 – but also in Qatar, a country that was a Saudi ally until a few days ago.
The moves since Trump’s visits have been so destabilizing that Turkey, which had long stayed clear of military involvement in the region, decided to speed up sending troops to Qatar. Iran offered airspace for besieged Qatar.
Analysts who monitor the Middle East say the United States should not be part of the Saudi plans to extend its hegemony over the Middle East.
“It would behove the US to avoid sides in this complex struggle that has mainly been provoked by Saudi Arabia’s new muscle-flexing,” according to Graham E. Fuller, former senior CIA official and author of numerous books on the Muslim World.
“Washington should also not allow Qatar to be subdued. Crushing Qatar is an exceedingly poor and retrogressive instrument by which to pursue the dubious game of intimidating Iran.”