At first glance, it is tempting to conclude that the United States has made the riskier bet. Not only has it soiled itself by association with the author of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, but it has also tethered its interests in the Middle East to a heedless ruler whose combination of youth and a penchant for blundering on an epic scale promises negative dividends for years and even decades to come.
However, any side that places its bet on the mercurial Trump is making an audacious gamble of its own. The crown prince seems, in any case, to have overlooked the fact that Trump is the temporary chief executive of the US. Whenever he leaves the scene, there will be a reckoning for his international enablers and abettors. The next administration will surely conduct a foreign policy that once again reflects enduring American values and interests. It will have, moreover, the CIA report at hand which identifies Prince Mohammed as responsible for the pre-meditated murder of a journalist who was a legal, permanent resident of the US. At that point, the crown prince will achieve the official US pariah status that he deserves. For this alone, King Salman ought now to replace him in the line of succession.
But the greater risk for Saudi Arabia is that in aligning with Donald Trump it has also effectively aligned itself with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and made itself complicit with the Trump administration’s systematic campaign to eradicate the political identity and national aspirations of the Palestinian people.
That the Saudis could benefit from tactical cooperation with Israel to counter the threat posed to both countries and the region by Iran is one thing. But the price that the Saudis have agreed to pay for Prince Mohammed’s triangular alliance with Trump and Netanyahu is almost beyond measure. For the remarkable steps taken by the administration – closing the PLO office in Washington, eliminating the US diplomatic outpost to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, defunding UNRWA and challenging the refugee status of millions of Palestinian exiles – aim at stripping the Palestinians of any claims to disputed lands, a right of return and ultimately to independent statehood. Media accounts indicate that Prince Mohammed has vigorously pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to accept US and Israeli terms for a peace settlement, an astonishing betrayal.
However, it is over the issue of Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, that the crown prince has gambled potentially with the legitimacy and stability of the House of Saud itself. As the protector of Mecca and Medina, the Saudi monarchy lays claim to unique responsibilities with regard to the defence of the Islamic faith. To be complicit in any way with Donald Trump’s move of the US Embassy and unilateral recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem carries existential risks for the Kingdom. Trump openly boasts that he has taken the issue of Jerusalem off the negotiating table, and no Israeli government can be expected to surrender such a monumental concession. The potential alienation of Islamic and Arab claims on the Holy City is fraught with consequences for the entire region.
The irony is that a US-Saudi-Israeli alliance meant to counter Iran may actually redound to Iran’s benefit. Not only does it enable Iran to score easy propaganda points, positioning itself as the alleged champion of Palestinian rights and defender of Arab interests against Israel. The Jerusalem issue, in particular, can be exploited by Iran to advance Shia claims to preeminence within the Islamic world.
It would seem that the current leadership of the US and Israel are so blinded by short-term considerations and besotted with a pliable prince that they have lost all sight of strategic interests. It will take the intervention of King Salman himself to restore balance to the Kingdom and curb reckless gambling on all sides in the combustible Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
What is ahead for the US-Saudi Arabia relationship?