Jared Kushner and Saudi Crown Prince Salman apparently got along famously during his recent trip to Riyadh, which found Kushner flying a commercial aircraft to the Kingdom, which was hardly the way to keep his trip secret. They talked until 4:00 a.m., as billionaires in their 30's are sometimes wont to do, about changing the world dramatically. Middle East Peace no doubt came up - Kushner is supposed to be representing the U.S. in brokering a new peace deal. Perhaps a word or two was exchanged about the Saudis lending $4 billion to Kushner Companies to help Jared out of his desperate financial situation with his investment in the 666 Fifth Avenue office building.
Just a few days after Kushner left Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince orchestrated a shocking purge of government ministers, mega-billionaires, and Wahabist clerics, some of whom are being held under house arrest at the Ritz-Carlton because "the kingdom doesn't have any jail facilities for royals." Salman heads an anti-corruption campaign, and Allah knows there are many targets in the kingdom who have earned billions of dollars through kickbacks and other shady means. But there is more to this purge than just fighting corruption. Salman is removing potential critics of his claim to the throne and his dramatic changes in policy, and that includes an aggressive campaign to fight growing Iranian interest throughout the Middle East.
If you see the world through Saudi eyes, they have reasons to be concerned about Iran. Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam, and the protector of the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina. But the Islam Saudi Arabia represents is Sunni Islam, which is mainstream Islam, though you could say the Saudi version with its Wahabist traditions is an extremely conservative version of Sunni Islam. Salman seems determined to reduce the influence of the Wahabist clerics in his kingdom, by rescinding their rights to run the judicial system, which is a big, big change not just in the kingdom. It means the practice of the Saudi government of fostering extreme Sunni Islam throughout the world, which has led to groups like the Taliban and ISIS, might be coming to an end.
The disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, under the pretense that Saddam had a terrifying arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, removed the Ba'ath Party from Iraq, and then Syria, leaving the geopolitical field in the Middle East wide open for Iran. Iran now is the effective power behind the Iraqi government, which used to be a Sunni government, but is now Shi'ite. Iran is allied with the U.S. in opposing ISIS in Syria, and is poised to engage in a battle for control of Syria again Bashir al-Assad's army and his Russian backers. Iran controls the government of Lebanon, whose prime minister by the way just fled to Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago, announced his resignation, and is in hiding in that country. Lebanon is now effectively open for business to various meddling outside countries looking for control, Iran having the upper hand because it is the sponsor of Hezbollah in Lebanon (and in the Palestine refugee camps as well).
Saudi Arabia now wants to aggressively resist Iran in its expansionist ambitions, and Crown Prince Salman believes the previous Saudi government was weak in the face of Iranian aggression. For example, the Saudi government has been battling rebels in neighboring Yemen for several years now, with the help of U.S. armaments. These rebels in turn are backed by Iran, and Salman wants to see more decisive military action taken in Yemen.
This is one, grand, geopolitical conflict in the Middle East which is, at its core, a religious war. This is precisely why the U.S. under Obama kept itself relatively neutral, supporting the Saudis in Yemen, but supporting the Iranians in the Iraqi fight against ISIS. It is this policy of neutrality which Trump has overthrown. The first country he visited abroad as president was Saudi Arabia, rather than any other traditional ally like Canada or the U.K. His son-in-law is now deeply engaged in private discussions with the young, aggressive and rather dictatorial Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman.
I'm convinced a good part of what is going on here is the alignment of oligarchical interests. The Saudi royal family are not just oligarchs but monarchs with dictatorial power. Trump is an oligarch with dictatorial ambitions which he makes clear on a routine basis. Trump finds it perfectly natural to combine the interests of the Trump Organization, in securing future business deals and financing from the Saudis, with the foreign policy of the United States.
The consequence is the United States has chosen sides in this religious war. We are on the side of the Sunnis against the Shi'ites, made all the easier because Trump got this idea that the nuclear non-proliferation deal the five great powers negotiated with Iran was terribly flawed because Obama's name was on it.
This is a whole new policy approach for the U.S., with tremendous dangers involved, not the least of which is disruption in the oil markets. The price of oil has quietly moved up to its ceiling rate of $60/bbl , and if it could break through this level it has a reasonable chance of shooting up to $80/bbl or higher. This would not terribly damage the U.S. economy, but it would be a surprise to the financial markets and would change the narrative of the current "goldilocks," or everything is perfect, mentality that now prevails.
But what is worse than this would be the political uncertainty involved. Iraq is a crippled oil producer, Syria is as well, and if you thrown in the Venezuelan upheavals, and dwindling oil fields of Mexico, Norway, and Indonesia, that leaves the oil market in the hands of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. Of those, Qatar is now in open conflict with Saudi Arabia and several other Sunni countries, for Qatar's alignment with Iran and Hezbollah. The U.S. was actually a modest exporter of oil when its fracking industry was going strong, so it has a perverse vested interest in building up its fracking business again if the Middle East were to erupt in open war.
Salman's critics say he is young, ruthless, and naive regarding the dangers he is toying with in dealing with so many destabilized regimes. We already know that Trump and Jared Kushner are naifs when it comes to global politics or the global economy, and that Trump in particular is willfully ignorant and dangerously impetuous.
Few in the United States or outside of the U.S. ever imagined it would be led by someone like Donald Trump. No one today is giving any thought to the possibility that the Middle East would descend into a full-blown religious war, and who gives much thought to the possibility that the Saudi regime, led by 4,000 ultra-pampered royals, could be overthrown? Yet it wouldn't take much effort for the Iranian government, with a population more than twice the size of Saudi Arabia, to invade that country in an attempt to seize its oil reserves.
If that were to happen, the U.S. has now made it clear it would not be neutral, not that it could have afforded to be under Obama or any other previous administration. But Obama's policy of neutrality on religious matters was intended to avoid inflaming the situation in the Middle East. Trump is heading into his alliance with Saudi Arabia holding a flame thrower in his hands, having repeatedly expressed his detestation of Iran. This is how situations get out of hand, and how the unthinkable, such as the U.S. engaging in a ground war over the oil fields in Saudi Arabia, or those in Iran, could occur.