Saudi royals signal the real magnitude of the deal they made with Trump
President Trump's spectacular reception in Riyadh is a signal to the world (and to Saudi subjects, in particular) that big changes are coming. Elderly and frail King Salman ventured out onto the apron in 110-degree heat and actually shook Melania Trump's hand as she deplaned Air Force One, thereby touching a female infidel.
Perhaps even more important in terms of Saudi daily life, the women in attendance at functions did not wear head coverings and abayas. The entire nation saw this on television and understands that the fracking-created global oil glut changes everything, that the infidels no longer cower in fear of a cutoff of the oil Allah granted to the protectors of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The old arguments of the fanatics hold less water.
Change is coming. The king signaled that the restrictions declared by the Wahhabi clergy are no longer the ultimate arbiter of personal behavior, and that Saudis are going to have to start respecting the customs of the infidels. Something like his handshake gesture can seem trivial, quaint, or even humorous to Americans, but it is very serious business. The role modeling of the women at the highest and most formal level reaches deep into the culture.
It is now clear that the king and his two designated successors (Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nyef and Mohammad bin Salman) have made a deal to liberalize Saudi Arabia. The deal-maker president has told them that there is a price of continued American support.
This would be against the wishes of powerful factions of the Saudi Royal Family (about 5,000 strong), some of whom are closely aligned with (and fund) the radical Wahhabi clergy. For decades, the (principally) Saudi-funded Wahhabis have poisoned the Ummah (the global Muslim community) with their feudal views. Saudi Arabia became mega-wealthy only in the 1950s, and the world's Muslims were not violently engaged in much jihad. The Wahhabi clergy and the Saudi-funded mosques they brought with them prepared the soil for al-Qaeda at home and abroad.
Make no mistake: there is every possibility that a violent reaction or a coup within the Royal Family if sufficiently provoked. The clergy are important because they preach to the Saudi masses and could whip them up into an attempt at an overthrow of the corrupt royals, who siphon off so much of Allah's bounty for their own decadent pleasures, many of them haram. That is why Saudi Arabia has such a large investment in its security forces. The plan is for them to remain loyal in the event of an uprising, but man plans, and Allah laughs.
The royals are in a very delicate position. The dominant faction, the king and his two designated successors, have to loosen things up gradually, step by step, so as to not put their opponents over the edge into a revolt that would brutally slaughter untold numbers, quite possibly including themselves. As with the mythological frog in a pot of water on the stove, they have to increase the heat very slowly.
They have already agreed to a deal to reward President Trump with a massive arms purchase worth $109.7 billion. That's jobs and profits. But this aspect of the deal, from the New York Times, is important:
On the afternoon of May 1, President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, welcomed a high-level delegation of Saudis to a gilded reception room next door to the White House and delivered a brisk pep talk: "Let's get this done today."
Mr. Kushner was referring to a $100 billion-plus arms deal that the administration hoped to seal with Saudi Arabia in time to announce it during Mr. Trump's visit to the kingdom this weekend. The two sides discussed a shopping list that included planes, ships and precision-guided bombs. Then an American official raised the idea of the Saudis' buying a sophisticated radar system designed to shoot down ballistic missiles.
Sensing that the cost might be a problem, several administration officials said, Mr. Kushner picked up the phone and called Marillyn A. Hewson – the chief executive of Lockheed Martin, which makes the radar system – and asked her whether she could cut the price. As his guests watched slack-jawed, Ms. Hewson told him she would look into it, officials said.
Mr. Kushner's personal intervention in the arms sale is further evidence of the Trump White House's readiness to dispense with custom in favor of informal, hands-on deal making. It also offers a window into how the administration hopes to change America's position in the Middle East, emphasizing hard power and haggling over traditional diplomacy.
This is a tangible and personal signal to the factions of the Saudi family represented in the high-level delegation. An Orthodox Jew, married to the favored child of the president (who became a Jew herself), saved them money using his personal connections. Call me suspicious, but I think this was carefully planned theatre. You have to see this against the background of the sudden new confluence of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia, united in opposition to Iran and Arab radical Islamic terrorists. The two nations already covertly cooperate, a ruse that cannot last forever. Slowly and surely, the Saudis have to turn away from the Palestinians and toward an embrace of Israel. And it turns out that there can be a considerable upside to making peace with Israel and the Jews.
So where do the Saudis go from here? How do they demonstrate to Trump, the world, and their own subjects that things are changing, and that it is acceptable?
My guess is that a symbolic measure that does not affect anyone in Saudi Arabia will be the next step. An easy one would be to end the prohibition against Israeli civilian airliners flying over Saudi airspace when flying eastward toward India, Thailand, and beyond. Israel's economic and tourism ties with Asia are large and growing, so this restriction, which adds hours and costs, is an irritant to Israelis, as well as a political statement to the world that Israel is illegitimate.
The fact is that President Trump's planned nonstop Air Force One flight from Riyadh and Ben Gurion Airport in Israel will be the first publicly known flight between the two nations. (There is a decent chance that secret flights have taken place because the governments do talk to each other covertly.) So Trump is already liberalizing their aviation restrictions.
Allowing Israeli airliners to fly over Saudi territory would be a good first step toward eventual direct flights, a sign of complete acceptance of Israel as a legitimate nation, which is the only long-term solution to peace between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. It is a long path, but there is no alternative to a step at a time, given the delicate political situation of the Saudi royals.
It is clear to me that President Trump has made a transformational deal, and that the West has a stake in helping it come to fruition.