Trump Engineered Saudi Soft Coup, attack on Qatar, to Save Self

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Michael Wolff in his new book Fire and Fury makes a number of allegations about Trump’s role in the Gulf crisis that, if true, help explain the mess in that part of the Middle East.

Wolff asserts that Trump and his then inner circle–Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Gary Cohn, Hope Hicks, etc.–hoped the mid-May foreign policy jaunt would change the conversation in Washington, DC, about Trump’s having fired FBI director James Comey and about the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. So the first thing to say is that the whole trip and the announcements around it were for the purpose of hype.

In ancient Greece, Bion of Borysthenes observed that “Boys throw stones at frogs in sport, but the frogs die in earnest.” Trump and his cronies glibly unleashed a massive crisis in Gulf affairs that will have long term downstream effects, all in hopes of a week or two of positive headlines.

Trump was convinced that his son-in-law and Middle East plenipotentiary, Jared Kushner, had gotten the Arab world on the side of the US and that his administration was on the cusp of a huge breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

His team was concerned that the geriatric, cautious, Saudi establishment was not up to the challenges of the 21st century. Jared had met with Muhammad bin Salman, the son of King Salman and minister of defense, and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the two became fast friends. It was, he is alleged to have remarked, like meeting someone nice on the first day in boarding school. (The bourgeois assumptions behind that remark are worth a book.)

Muhammad bin Salman is an insular and largely uneducated young prince in his early thirties known for his recklessness, love of conflict and bullying style of regional politics. So of course the Trumpies fell head over heels in love with him.

Trump misunderstood what was being offered by the Saudis. They had made a vague commitment in the Obama era to buy some US military weaponry, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. They recycled this pledge for Trump, specifying $110 bn. Most of it was not a new commitment. Trump, on whom the Wizard of Oz has nothing, hyped this old pledge into hundreds of billions in new investments in the US and was sure that the Saudis all by themselves could in this way jumpstart the US manufacturing sector. While Saudi Arabia is heavily invested in the US stock market and in US real estate, and while it helps keep Boeing, Lockheed Martin and a whole phalanx of Washington fixers in business, that they are interested in more US F-18s is not new news and was not a game changer in the way Trump understood it.

Trump also seems to have been under the impression, perhaps given to him by Muhammad bin Salman, that Saudi Arabia would offer the US a new air force base, replacing the al-Udeid Base in Qatar, where some 11,000 US personnel are stationed, and which has been crucial for the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al-Udeid will be even more important if Trump roils relations with Pakistan to the point where the latter cuts back on US basing rights for Afghanistan bombing raids.

Saudi Arabia does not have the slightest intention of giving the US a military base. It leased Prince Sultan air base to the US during the Clinton era for policing the Gulf War aftermath and no fly zones in Iraq, and that was one of the bases on which al-Qaeda’s Usama Bin Laden said he launched the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, which left almost 3,000 dead. It isn’t true historically, but fundamentalist Muslims believe that early Muslim holy figures banned non-Muslims from the Muslim holy land around Mecca and Medina, and Bin Laden et al. interpreted it as a ban on foreign troops anywhere in Saudi Arabia, which rules over the holy cities.

So then Trump accepted the Saudi line that Saudi Arabia is uninvolved in Muslim terrorism, but that Qatar is. This proposition is bizarre. I have argued that it is inaccurate to associate the Saudi state with terrorism, since it was at daggers drawn with al-Qaeda. The argument that it spreads terrorism indirectly by spreading its intolerant and bigoted interpretation of Wahhabi Islam is also hard to prove, since most acts of terrorism in the Middle East have not been carried out by Wahhabis but by Sunnis. Terrorism is a weapon of the weak, and people deploy it when they feel oppressed and blocked and want to break out of some intolerable situation. How they frame the world (why they see a situation as intolerable) is important, but only part of the picture.

Qatar has been an important US ally in the fight against terrorism. Not only has al-Udeid base (once commanded by current US Secretary of Defense James Mattis) been absolutely crucial, but Qatar helped capture al-Qaeda’s mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and operative Ramzi Bin al-Shibh.

The Saudis mean, when they charge Qatar with supporting terrorism, that many in the Qatari government are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood (which used to be supported by Saudi Arabia before the early 2000s). The Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization. It ran for office peacefully in Egypt before being massively repressed. The Saudis and the Egyptians just don’t like it, so they brand it terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood is right wing and religious, but not opposed to democracy, and has parallels to the Christian Dominionism of US Vice President Mike Pence, who also probably is not a terrorist. For Trump of all people to equate support for the religious Right with terrorism is rich.

So Trump appears to have given a green light to Muhammad Bin Salman last May to do two things: to make a soft coup against Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and to launch a campaign to isolate and perhaps overthrow Qatar.

After Trump’s visit, on 21 June 2017, King Salman removed Bin Nayef from all his positions. Muhammad Bin Salman became the crown prince. Wolff said Trump exulted that June that he had made a coup in Saudi Arabia and put his own man in charge. But this soft coup had been predicted in late 2016 by German intelligence and was long in train. Trump at most gave it his imprimatur.

But the Saudis were emboldened. On June 5, 2017, they severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and put it under boycott. Qatar is a small country and a peninsula that juts into the Gulf, surrounded on land by Saudi Arabia. There are roughly 300,000 Qatari citizens and a guest worker population that brings the total to 3 million. Saudi Arabia probably has a citizen population of 20 million (they exaggerate it) and a guest worker population of 6-8 million. Saudi Arabia initially apparently planned an invasion of Qatar and overthrow of its emir in favor of a puppet from an alienated branch of the ruling family, sort of along the lines of its war on Yemen. But the Turkish parliament voted to allow troops to be sent to Qatar, and that move put the brakes on any Saudi invasion plans.

In the end, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed an economic and travel boycott on Qatar, which is probably illegal by the rules of the World Trade Organization. They also cut off Qatar Air from air traffic control, which is certainly illegal. (Qatar Air has survived nicely but had to fly over Iran, Iraq and Turkey). After initial concern about the loss of trucked in food imports via Saudi highways, Qatar replaced them with goods shipped from Iran or Iraq by sea or brought in by plane. Prices went up a little for some things but the situation has normalized.

This naked power grab on the part of Saudi Arabia has likely destroyed the budding Gulf Cooperation Council (that groups Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar), which aimed at being sort of like the European Union plus NATO for the small Gulf Arab oil monarchies. Some of its rationale was to resist Iranian hegemony, so breaking it up helps Iran. Iran has correct relations with Qatar, and stepped in to help offset the Saudi boycott.

To any extent that Trump encouraged the rash Saudi move, he helped further fragment politics in the region. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and SecDef Mattis clearly did not approve and have tried behind the scenes to undermine Trump policy in this regard.

So to conclude: Trump did not get hundreds of billions in new investments in the US from Saudi Arabia. He did manage to put in an erratic and aggressive crown prince in Riyadh, helping destabilize the region in ways Iran will take advantage of. The other corner of Wolff’s reporting on the May trip, that Trump thought it was a prelude to Peace in Our Time in Israel-Palestine, is too complex to take on here but that was also obviously a scam.


Related video:

Aljazeera English from 2 weeks ago: “Qatar marks National Day amid ongoing Gulf crisis”

18 Responses

  1. Wahhabis are Sunnis. Wahhabism is a flavor of Sunni islam, though the Wahhabis themselves will tell you that they’re the real, pure, Sunnis.
    You can safely assume that all Saudi-funded madrasas over the world are teaching the students Wahhabism.

    • Except they really aren’t in the historical sense. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab did not want to be associated with Sunnism. He styled himself as a reformer of Islam, and rejected all of the four schools of law in Sunnism. Wahhabis today might like to say that they are Sunni, but if one examines their history, they are extraordinarily inimical to Sunnis.

      Saudi-funded madrassas teach deeply problematic dogma.

  2. Saudi Arabia may be hostile to Al Qaida at home, but has supported it wholeheartedly abroad. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had turned peaceful, but not the Syrian branch, which has advocated for intervention against Assad, and is thought to have been behind the rapid militarization of the protest movement in Syria.

  3. Dear Juan, how much can I possibly thank you?

    You are so exquisite in your historical analysis, I must at least do you the favor of delaying my much-needed bedtime to forward this to FB for my first thing there in a month or so.

  4. David Thurston Martin

    I generally agree with your assessment except you are giving too much emphasis on the cover story, in particular, the arms deal. MBS bought Trump’s support for the removal of bin Nayef, attacking Qatar (with Erik Prince’s mercenaries based in the UAE), the resignation of Hariri in Lebanon, and the arrest of rival princes, for one simple reason: $20 billion Saudi deal with Blackstone. What people don’t understand is that the “Russia story” is not a Russia story — Russia is a dependent economy getting crushed by low oil prices and sanctions — it needed Saudi cooperation to raise oil prices as much as, if not more than, the US to lift sanctions. For the operation to work in the States, it needed support from powerful forces WS (Blackstone), Big Oil (ExxonMobil), the Mercers (Bannon) and the DeVoses (Prince). The free hand that MBS has comes directly out of that deal, particularly when they pay $20 to Trump’s handler, Schwarzman. Trump got fooled if you believe the cover story — what matter is Blackstone got paid ($400 just for management fees of Saudi money, not including percent on return).

    • You’ve given me a lot to think about. Everyone forgot about the Aramco privatization fees story.

      Do you think with the Qatar scheme now a mess, that Saudi and Russia will be able to push for more production quotas?

    • Very interesting. Please share some sources for the information you’re giving, I’m extremely curious.


  5. “The argument that it spreads terrorism indirectly by spreading its intolerant and bigoted interpretation of Wahhabi Islam is also hard to prove, since most acts of terrorism in the Middle East have not been carried out by Wahhabis but by Sunnis”

    Can we please stop splitting hairs on this? Wahhabism was successfully sold through propaganda to mainstream Sunnis globally who’ve adopted many of their conservative and extreme beliefs, whether they realize it or not. Wahhabism is a Sunni sub-sect with limited barrier to entry or a very bare thin line. Canada names Sunni Islamist extremism, particularly of the Wahhabi or Salafi kind, as the top violent security threat. Ideologically the radical doesn’t necessarily have to be a Wahhabi, but will most likely share similarities.

    Just look at Pakistan since the 80’s, when the Wahhabification took off. Pakistan had it’s own different local conservative Sunni strains like the Deoband and Ahl-e-Hadith but hardline religious state laws would adopt Saudi thinking (the Hudood ordinance that affects victimized women) and the sectarian anti-Shia hate and violence thrived thanks to a renewed push by the foreign Saudis and their heavy financing to such local groups (besides the Mujahideen for the Afghan cause) in Pakistan which would lead to proxy attacks against minority Shias and eventually dominate most general terrorism today.

    Religious and cultural beliefs such as no mourning past 3 days and indeed, no crying for the deceased because it’s “haram”, is now more common practice amongst conservative Pakistani Sunnis than ever before, which used to be unheard of. It’s not just a Pakistani thing. Indonesians, Bosnians, Bengalis, etc. Literally a good number of global Sunni Muslim citizens look at the Saudi model as a legit and divine example in the Sunni world.

    “Terrorism is a weapon of the weak, and people deploy it when they feel oppressed and blocked and want to break out of some intolerable situation. How they frame the world (why they see a situation as intolerable) is important, but only part of the picture.”

    It’s now become a weapon of ideological supremacists and thrill seeking radicals, who aren’t all from a poor or uneducated background, like many flew in from the West, when many of their soft targets are frequently other weak non-Sunni and other non-Muslim groups in the region, besides other moderate Sunnis.

  6. “I have argued that it is inaccurate to associate the Saudi state with terrorism, since it was at daggers drawn with al-Qaeda. The argument that it spreads terrorism indirectly by spreading its intolerant and bigoted interpretation of Wahhabi Islam is also hard to prove, since most acts of terrorism in the Middle East have not been carried out by Wahhabis but by Sunnis.”

    Saudi Arabia through it’s financial, material, political and logistical support of Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam is the life-line of these two terrorist organizations. Both of these groups would be severely curtailed and would not be able to carry out their operations in Syria and Iraq if Saudi Arabia never supported them the first place. Both of these groups have used violence on civilians to achieve political objectives, and therefore meet the definition of terrorist groups.

    The bigger problem is the war crimes that Saudi Arabia has on it’s record and perpetuates not only without impunity but with support from many countries in the OECD. One of the biggest challenges that humanity has faced in the 21st century is that of war crimes. Saudi bombardment of Yemen to the point where there is a mass cholera outbreak, large number of civilian casualties, little potable water, mass starvation and infant stunting is a war crime. Saudi actions in Iraq and Syria also amount to war crimes. Saudi Arabia’s practice of gender apartheid is also in violation of the universal declaration of human rights.

    Saudi actions worldwide and domestically break numerous statutes in International and human rights laws. While these specific acts of lawbreaking do not amount to terrorism, their effects and consequences are extraordinarily severe.

    • Calling support for Syrian rebels ‘terrorism’ is just propaganda, and would implicate France and the US as well. Anyway that isn’t what people mean in the West when they charge Saudi Arabia with terrorism. They think the royal family is al-Qaeda, which is ridiculous.

      • You wrote on 05/22/17 in a post titled, “Trump on Islam: Neo-Orientalism and anti-Shiism”:

        “Then they condemn Iranian intervention in Syria but don’t mention that Saudi Arabia backed the radical terrorist group Jaysh al-Islam that had genocide against Syria’s Shiites on their minds.”

        That is a true statement. This group has committed pogroms against Shias, Yazidis, Sunnis and other Syrians that do not support them. Saudi support of this group amounts to a war crime.

        I agree with your second point that the Saudi royal family is not al-Qaeda. Mohammad bin Salman is a war criminal whose crimes are highlighted in my earlier comment.

      • Prof. Cole, I call random shelling of civilian areas in Syria terrorism. The nations that provided the shells are supporters of terrorism. If this includes the US and France then so be it.

  7. Are you sure that Trump and Kushner aren’t looking for personal financing from Saudi Arabia? Maybe there are too many strings attached with the Russian money.
    It seems everything Trump does is personal; tax cuts for example.
    How much does the changing market for oil and the amount of reserves in Saudi Arabia have to do with the turmoil?

  8. This certainly is a persuasive account of the relationship between Trump and Saudi Arabia. However, I have also heard another version that seems to have some merit. From the time that the talks on the Iran nuclear deal started, Netanyahu and the Saudis who had hoped to use Iran’s nuclear program as an excuse to bring about a US attack on Iran to “cut off the snake’s head” got terribly worried and got to work to torpedo that agreement, including Netanyahu’s address to the Joint Session of Congress to speak against the key policy of a sitting president. Netanyahu had long boasted that some Arab countries were colluding with him against Iran. There were reports even before Trump came to power about Saudis offering huge sums in the form of arms purchases and investment in the United States to prevent the agreement.

    What seems likely is that the Saudis and the Israelis, including some extremely wealthy anti-Iranian activists such as Sheldon Adelson who contributed the highest amount to Trump’s campaign, got behind Trump in order to undermine the deal. Even from the beginning of his campaign Trump called the deal the worst deal in history and pledged to tear it to shreds.

    So, instead of concentrating on Russia’s role to influence the US election or in addition to it, one should look at the role played by the Israelis and the Saudis and their local lobbies to influence the election outcome. Therefore, rather than Trump and Kushner playing the Saudis, it seems that it was the Saudis and the Israelis who influenced the US election and manipulated Trump and Kushner to achieve their goal. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Saudis had put together a plan on the basis of an outside-in-approach to find a solution to the Palestinian issue to Israel’s liking and impose it on the Palestinians. Today’s article in the New York Times about the Egyptian intelligence’s efforts to put pressure on influential Egyptians to say that Egypt’s policy is to give Jerusalem to Israel because there is no difference between Ramallah and Jerusalem lends support to that theory.

    • This is extremely interesting. Can you give me a couple of sources for the information you shared? Thanks

      • There is need for further research about background to the links between the Saudis and the Israelis and the Trump Administration. Both states had feelings of intense hostility towards Iran, a feeling that was also shared by candidate Trump and his first National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn.
        Meanwhile, for links between Israel and Kushner just see the article in today’s Informed Comment:
        link to
        For the links between Kushner and MbS see:
        link to

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