Donald Trump, America’s reality TV president, is running out of stunts.
Long queues are forming for early voting and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s lead appears unassailable. Trump has taken to begging: “Suburban women, will you please like me?”
He told a rally in Johnstown: “Please, please. I saved your damned neighbourhood, okay? The other thing, I don’t have much time to be that nice. You know, I can do it but I got to go quickly.”
The long game
The mood in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is dark. Their “roof” – the Russian word for a mafia boss – could soon be flying off their cavernous palaces, leaving their owners exposed. No Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser, to take those midnight calls asking whether they can invade Qatar.
Netanyahu is playing the long game. But Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, are not, and can not
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not as bothered. A veteran of four US presidents, two of them Democrat, he knows what winter in Washington is like. Netanyahu is a man for all seasons. He never stopped getting the White House to wash his dirty laundry.
Netanyahu told the Knesset passing the UAE deal on Thursday that he still believes Palestinians will “sober up”. He is playing the long game. But Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), are not, and can not. The two men plotting to control the Sunni Arab world need results now.
The billions of dollars they poured into Trump, which they are just about to lose if Trump loses the election, are the least of their problems.
The vehicle for their plans, Arab recognition of Israel, is stalling. No big Arab state has joined the deal. No joy yet from Sudan, Oman or Kuwait. So far only two small Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have recognised Israel this time round, and their act needs to be set in stone.
The clock is ticking. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) needs to be replaced with their own man, Mohammed Dahlan, and resistance needs to be knocked out of Palestinian leaders – or so MBZ thinks.
Bring on Bandar
So last week they wheeled out a veteran Saudi prince to denounce “childish” Palestinian leaders in a bid to soften Arab public opinion and create the ground for Saudi Arabia to follow suit.
Speaking on Saudi owned Al Arabiya TV, Prince Bandar bin Sultan ranged over 37 years of Saudi diplomacy, for 22 years of which he had been the ambassador in Washington.
His theme was simple: “I believe that we in Saudi Arabia, acting on our good will, have always been there for them [the Palestinians]. Whenever they asked for advice and help, we would provide them with both without expecting anything in return, but they would take the help and ignore the advice. Then they would fail and turn back to us again, and we would support them again, regardless of their mistakes and of the fact that they knew they should have taken our advice.”
It was time for Saudi Arabia to go its own way, and follow its own national interest, Bandar said.
The broadcast created a backlash around the Arab world. Quite apart from the Palestinians, Bandar taking centre stage once more reminded millions of Iraqis, Syrians and Egyptians just how costly Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy had been to them over the last two decades.
It reminded them of every US war or dirty deal that Bandar had been involved in personally. The list is as long as Bandar’s 22-year career in Washington: the Iran-Contra scandal, the Al Yamamah arms deal, the first Gulf War, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and finally the war in Syria.
Bandar was up to his neck in all of them.
In the first Gulf war he was so close to the Americans that in Brent Scowcroft’s words the Saudi prince was “a de facto member of the National Security Council”. George W Bush shared America’s invasion plans of Iraq with Bandar before the start of the war in 2003. In Syria, it was Bandar who, as head of Saudi Intelligence, released 1,200 inmates on death row, trained them and sent them to “jihad” in Syria.
Bandar’s was the face of all the backroom deals Saudi Arabia made against fellow Arab nations, a face that kept on popping up no matter how outrageous the scandal, or how many paid the price.
Bandar had no shame. A Palestinian friend of mine was once invited in to see Bandar when he was ambassador. Saudi Arabia was interested in reaching out to the organisation for which he then worked. There lying ostentatiously on Bandar’s table was a big bag of dollar notes.
Bandar taking centre stage once more reminded millions of Iraqis, Syrians, and Egyptians just how costly Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy had been to them personally over the last two decades
All the while Bandar was being paid £30m every three months for at least 10 years by British Aerospace Engineering as part of his kickback for the Al Yamamah arms deal. The Serious Fraud Office wanted Britain to press charges. Tony Blair, then prime minister, stopped the investigation “for reasons of national interest”.
The Prince of Serious Fraud laughed it off.
He said: “The way I answer the corruption charges is this. In the last 30 years we have implemented a development programme, that was approximately close to $400 billion dollars worth, okay? Look at the whole country. Where it was, where it is now.
“And I am confident when you look it at it, you will say, you could not have done it for less than, lets say 350 billion. And if you tell me that building this whole country and spending 350 billion out of 400 billion, that we have a misused or corrupt 50 billion, I will tell you yes, but I will take that any time. But more important, who are you to tell me this? I see the scandals here, or in England or in Europe. What I am trying to tell you is, so what?”
Throughout his long career, Bandar stuck to one principle. He served his master. Does not matter who. The master could be the king of Saudi Arabia or the president of the United States, or both. So much for the man, but what of the policies, the wars, the interventions he helped fashion?
Normalisation with Israel creates an Arab front to counter Turkey and Iran. But as the Palestinian academic Khaled al-Hroub pointed out in a lengthy demolition of Bandar’s thesis on Al Quds al Arabi website, how can Bandar explain to the Saudi people why it is that Iran is trampling all over the kingdom’s back yard?
“The big question here is why didn’t the prince explain to the Saudi people how Iran has become a threat to Saudi Arabia? And who is responsible for enabling it to seize control of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and what role did he himself play in Washington as a tool in the hands of George W Bush during the preparations for destroying Iraq and delivering it as a gift on a silver plate to Iran?
“It was only after that war that Iran penetrated deep into the Levant, occupying and dominating, and subsequently besieging Saudi Arabia from the north. What was the responsibility of the Saudi leadership, and he was part of it, in facilitating that war and paving the way for Iranian hegemony?” Hroub wrote.
“Could Bandar explain to the Saudis, also how Iran, a subject of sanctions for nearly four decades, was able to build its own military and nuclear power, and Saudi could not even defend itself? Why is it compelled to seek refuge and escape behind Israel, or even America, out of fearing this or that regional enemy? Where has its wealth gone?” Hroub asked.
Saudi legacy on Palestine
And if you complain that Palestinians take but never deliver, what, exactly did Saudi deliver on Palestine?
There were two Saudi packaged peace initiatives: King Fahd’s initiative in 1981 and King Abdullah’s Arab Peace Initiative in 2002. Each initiative was timed to perform a specific purpose – other than to achieve a just settlement for Palestinians.
King Fahd’s initiative was made on former US president Jimmy Carter’s request, and contained the first implicit Arab recognition of Israel by virtue of accepting two UN Security Council resolutions as a framework for the settlement. The plan was was adopted in a modified form at the Arab summit in Fez, Morocco, on 9 September 1982 after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the siege of Beirut and expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Its purpose was to absorb Arab anger.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C-R) dining with US House Speaker Paul Ryan (C-L), Republican of Wisconsin, during the Saudi-US Partnership Gala event in Washington, DC, along with former US Vice President Dick Cheney (4th-R), former Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Bandar bin Sultan
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C-R) dining with US House Speaker Paul Ryan (C-L), along with former Saudi ambassador to the US Prince Bandar bin Sultan March 2018 (AFP)
The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, similarly, mopped up US wrath after the September 11 attacks in which Saudi nationals were involved, and the government itself implicated. It was dead on arrival, being rejected by then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on day one, but that did not matter.
The thread behind both initiatives was to placate Arab opinion while allowing the real work of squeezing Palestinian leaders into ever tighter circles of compliance to continue. Neither initiative was backed up with action.
This is one reason why Israel is in the position of total dominance that it is now and why the kingdom has stooped so low.
Saudi’s foreign policy has not been about solving the problems of the region. It has been about preserving the House of Saud at all costs. Bandar’s career epitomises this.
Saudi’s foreign policy has not been about solving the problems of the region. It has been about preserving the House of Saud at all costs. Bandar’s career epitomises this
The kingdom will betray any ally and cause to preserve the family’s place and wealth for as long as it can. It does this by sowing chaos. Bandar weaponised the Syrian opposition, but ensured that not enough weapons ever came through for a broad coalition of rebel forces to prevail.
Then in the summer of 2015, Mohammed bin Salman, who had recently been appointed defence minister, flipped his support for the rebels and encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin to come marching in. Later on Mohammed bin Zayed paid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to break the ceasefire in Idlib with Turkey, to the vast annoyance of Putin. Win or lose, chaos and flip flops ensure that Syria itself is permanently weakened. The same happened in Iraq.
Taking the Arab street off air
Like Machiavelli himself, the princes of the House of Saud know they are sitting on a tinderbox.
The annual Arab Opinion Index, published by the Doha Institute, found that only six percent of Saudi approved of the deal to recognise Israel. The rate of refusal was 99 percent in Algeria, 94 percent in Lebanon, 93 percent in Jordan (which recognised Israel in 1994) and the same in Tunisia.
But the right-wing Washington Institute produces much the same evidence. It found that a mere nine percent of Saudis today agree that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so”. On relations with Israelis themselves, the institute found that approximately 80 percent of Emiratis polled disagreed with the notion that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so”.
Saudi Arabia’s totalitarian regime knows only one way of changing public opinion – taking it off air.
When Saudi funded TV channel MBC removed the acclaimed drama, al-Taghreba al-Falastenya (The Palestinian Exodus) from on-demand video streaming service shahid.net, there was such an outcry it was forced to re-instate it. The award-winning drama is one of the most famous Arabic language dramas about the Palestinian cause.
Both professionally and personally, Bandar sums up the disaster of the last two decades. A depressive and an alcoholic, Bandar threw his family to the wolves – his uncle, Prince Ahmed, his sister the wife of Mohammed bin Nayef and many cousins. All to serve his new master Mohammed bin Salman. Bandar has his rewards. His son and daughter occupy the two leading posts of London and Washington.
The sooner the likes of Bandar sink below the waves, the quicker the region can recover.