Either way, the Middle East is in for a very turbulent 2018. As Thomas Friedman argues in today’s NYT Op Ed, entitled The Art of the Giveaway, President Trump’s speech recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital looks to be a direct affront to Middle East peace. And it is. Is there some thought behind this, or is it just raw provocation, meant to appeal to Trump’s base, as with his re-tweets of anti-Muslim videos a week ago?
An interesting question, however, is how this does, or does not, play into the broader regional struggle between Shi’a and Sunni, and the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry. It seems unlikely that both Saudi Arabia and Egypt had no advance warning of the move (whether either could have done something about it, is another story). The timing of Trump’s harsh criticism of Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemen is also interesting, as it suggests a possible link to Saudi Arabia’s somewhat restrained condemnationof the Jerusalem announcement. What of the built in, lengthy delay between the announcement and any actual implementation of the move?
Saudi’s young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”) is the standard-bearer for a regional effort to roll back the rise of Iranian influence in the Sunni Arab heartland, following George W. Bush’s 2003 U.S. war in Iraq. Like Trump, MBS is a risk taker, as he has shown with recent eye-catching moves in Saudi Arabia, e.g., the detention of Saudi business elites in exchange for ‘release payments’ of billions of dollars, and lifting restrictions on women’s driving. The Saudi’s U.S.-backed bombing campaign in fragile Yemen (ostensibly to target the “nominally” Iran-backed Houthi rebels), is also a huge gamble, that has created a humanitarian catastrophe. Like Trump, MBS has been described as bold and impatient — and something that Trump has not yet been called in unison: clever.
But while Trump has made chaos-sowing an art, is it possible that he is betting on an inappropriately-termed “Hail Mary” play that pleases both Israel and Saudi Arabia (the interests of the Palestinians tend to come last)? Or is he just playing with fire.