The scars of colonialism are everywhere to be seen—India, Africa, the Middle East and indeed the world over. While historians may debate the full impact of colonialism for years to come, the fact that force was used by colonial powers to subjugate countries is evident. In the post-WWII era, however, colonialists have morphed into what is better referred to as collaborative colonialists. In an era of 24-hour news and investigative journalism, these neo-colonialists have recognized that colonialism cannot be favorably practiced as before. Soft colonialism or collaborative colonialism, essentially co-opting autocratic leaders and supporting them, politically and militarily (through the sales of arms, training intelligence and military personnel and military bases) to the benefit of rulers and neo-colonialists, has become the practice of our times.
America has sold hundreds of billions of dollars of military equipment to its client states, has enjoyed preferred access to their markets for its exports and has enjoyed an assured supply of raw materials (especially oil), while former American politicians have benefited from lucrative lobbying and consulting contracts and outlandish gifts (a veritable international revolving door). Simultaneously, rulers in the countries of America’s soft empire and their cronies have amassed great wealth at the expense of their people.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized this practice when he is reputed to have said, “He [Anastasio Somoza] may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Years have passed since that well-known remark and the United States has continued down the same road supporting dictators around the world while professing support for human rights and democratic values. But with the passage of time, such duplicity has become increasingly embarrassing. So Donald Trump has thrown caution to the wind and has come out to acknowledge being the supreme practitioner of the art of collaborative colonialism.
President Trump has set aside all pretensions of support for human rights as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy; he has thrown America’s full backing behind Saudi Arabia’s aggressive policies in the Persian Gulf and those of its allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates by vilifying Iran, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and all Shia Muslims; he has looked after America’s perceived commercial interests by approving massive sales of military hardware to these clients; and yes, lest we forget, the Trump organization is pursuing its own business interests in the United Arab Emirates and in Saudi Arabia. For the fruits of President Trump’s labors, just follow the money; it is the Saudi way.
While Trump’s view of America’s perceived interests is apparent, what are the possible consequences of his support for Saudi Arabia’s aggressive policies under the helm of an inexperienced and ambitious 31-year old Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman?
We predict a catastrophic train wreck, including the possibility of a Third Gulf War involving many more direct combatants than in the two previous wars. It is one thing to defend your ‘son of a bitch’ from external, or even internal, aggression, but it is something entirely different when you support your client dictator as he threatens several hundred millions of his ‘perceived’ enemies and you appear to throw your political and military support into conflicts that your ‘son a of a bitch’ might instigate.
Ever since 1979 (the Iranian Revolution), the senior members of the Al-Saud tribe, apparently including the new Crown Prince, have been paranoid about Iran. They are convinced that the regime in Tehran is working tirelessly for their overthrow. To us, speaking from first-hand experience, we believe that this is not the case. Anecdotally, a most senior member of the Iranian security services once said in a private conversation with us, “The overthrow of the Shah and his immediate family was easy. There were less than 20 of them. These Al-Sauds run into the thousands. How could we get rid of them all?” After extensive personal dialogue with the powers that be in Iran, we believe that Tehran has no such intentions but would like to see fewer U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere around the Persian Gulf. But the Al-Sauds crave for the replacement of the current regime in Tehran with one that is to their liking. Even if the regime in Tehran were to be overthrown, it is unlikely that any replacement regime would embrace the Al-Sauds given their history—support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, their continued vilification of Iran, Iranians and Shia Muslims, and their threats as they hide behind America’s shield. Al-Saud policies toward Iran are making the achievement of harmonious relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia ever more difficult.
Today, the real danger in the Persian Gulf is that Mohammad bin Salman, believing that he enjoys full U.S. support, may think that with businessman Trump as President it is Saudi Arabia’s best chance to get rid of the regime in Tehran. If so, he may instigate a conflict with Iran. In the ensuing conflict, the U.S. would have little choice but to afford Saudi Arabia and its allies (the United Arab Emirates and possibly Egypt and Jordan) heavy air support and targeted bombing of Iranian military and political facilities, and if needed U.S. boots on the ground. Such a scenario would be absolute madness, but it is one that could come about given the Al-Saud obsession about Iran and Trump’s implicit support for everything the Al-Sauds want: making Al-Jazeera a Saudi mouthpiece, labeling any challenge to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and to Al-Saud legitimacy (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) as terrorist, falsely accusing the rulers of Qatar of being supporters of terrorism, turning a blind eye on human rights abuses in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and putting the United States squarely on the side of the Al-Sauds (Sunnis) in the middle of a sectarian conflict that dates back to the 8th century.
Given Trump’s publicized support for the newly crowned Saudi Crown Prince, could this 31-year old feel his oats and start a war that could involve the United States and inflame the entire Middle East?