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Trump and Saudi Arabia: How the Trump Administration’s Business Dealings Emboldened Saudi Human Rights Abuses

Introduction

During a trip to Saudi Arabia back in May of 2017, former President Donald Trump exhibited the first signs that under his leadership, the United States would further deepen its ties with the often-criticized Saudi regime. From the moment he placed his hand on a glowing orb alongside the dictator of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz, Trump demonstrated his intent to cozy up with some of the gravest human rights abusers in the region. The question of why however is one that goes deeper than a simple geopolitical or national security standpoint. It can be perplexing to observers as the United States condemns other governments in the region such as Iran for its human rights violations but coordinates closely with the Saudi Arabian regime which has a long and detailed history of such behavior as well. Under the Trump administration, this inconsistency in American foreign policy was taken to another level and emboldened the Saudi regime even more. The former president and his family had invested business dealings within Saudi Arabia, and Trump’s corrupt interactions enabled Saudi human rights abuses and negatively impacted the United States’ image overseas with allies and adversaries alike.

Scope of Saudi Human Rights Abuses

The history of human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia is one that is long, detailed, and disturbing. In Yemen, the Saudis, using U.S. military money and weapons, have engaged in a costly and devastating conflict. While supporting the country’s government against the Houthi rebels, the Saudi military has taken part in deadly drone strikes which have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. The attacks have also caused disastrous damage to Yemen’s infrastructure and resulted in what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The situation has led to widespread malnutrition which has disproportionally affected the children of Yemen. Despite a significant amount of bipartisan outcry regarding U.S. arms support which has aided Saudi Arabia’s war efforts and the troubling circumstances in Yemen, the Trump administration prioritized the financial gains tied to the arms dealings.

Women within Saudi Arabia have also faced mass discrimination and repression which has been carried out by the regime. Not even allowed to drive until recently, women are often treated as second-class citizens in the hyper-paternal society enforced by the Saudi government. Although some surface-level changes have been made to try and improve the image to the outside world, many restrictions remain in place. Lack of equal opportunity and strict social standards act as discriminating forces even in modern-day Saudi society. It would be an understatement to say that dissent against the Saudi government is not tolerated. Human rights reports from the U.S. Department of State and various advocacy groups have detailed the long list of Saudi Arabian abuses against political dissidents. Forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and unlawful killings are common tactics used in an attempt to maintain power and repress dissent against the government.

In possibly the most notorious example of the Saudi’s regime’s lack of respect for human rights was the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The U.S. resident, who was employed and lived in the United States, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Suffocated and dismembered by a 15-person Saudi hit team, the journalist was killed for his criticism of the Saudi regime’s human and social rights violations. This was a clear and evident violation of international law, which allows for free and fair media, and was especially egregious due to the carefully connived nature of the incident. U.S. intelligence agencies and various human rights watch groups have determined that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was planned and approved by the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). President Trump, however, accepted his denial, trusting the word of MBS over his own U.S. intelligence agencies and the international community at-large. With his response, Trump could not have made his position clearer. The financial considerations again were more important than rightfully speaking out against MBS for the crime, which Trump believed was not linked to him and would jeopardize hundreds of billions of arms deals with the regime – the same weapons that were causing the dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Even as additional later reports undoubtedly signaled MBS’ direct role in the murder, the Trump administration showed that their concern lied with the Crown Prince as opposed to ensuring justice was secured for the murdered American resident.

Trump’s love and affinity with the Crown Prince and the Saudi regime seems perplexing over why the U.S. president would side with a foreign entity ahead of his own internal intelligence agencies. However, the answer lies in the fact that Trump’s business dealings and those of his son-in-law Jared Kushner had a notable influence on the administration’s foreign policy decisions with Saudi Arabia. Put simply, the Saudi regime felt that they could buy Trump’s policies.

Trump’s Business Dealings with Saudi Arabia

Trump has claimed numerous times that he has had no business dealings with Saudi Arabia, once tweeting a response to the allegations saying “for the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter). Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!” However, it’s clear that Trump – both before and upon becoming president – engaged in numerous business dealings with members of the Saudi royal family.

In the early 1990s, Trump sold a $20 million yacht to Al Waleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family. The 283-foot yacht named “The Princess” helped remove Trump from one of the many “near bankruptcy” moments in his business career. Later, in 2001, the Saudi government purchased the entire 45th floor of the Trump World Tower in New York City for $4.5 million and in between then and 2016 – when Trump became president – the Saudis paid him another $5.7 million in annual fees.

As president, Trump’s businesses also gained financial dealings with the Saudi royal family. In August of 2018, Saudi officials visited the Trump International Hotel, boosting its revenue by 13%, a significant increase after two years of economic decline. A lobbying firm connected to the Saudi royal family also paid $270,000 to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. between October of 2016 and March of 2017.

It is hard to make a case that these dealings did not influence Trump’s policy decisions towards Saudi Arabia. Both on the campaign trail and as president, he boasted about his past dealings with the Saudi Arabian royal family. It’s clear that these dealings connected Trump and his administration to the Saudi royal family, with the latter aiding Trump in his business affairs, and in return, his White House providing support to the Saudis’ political affairs and agenda.

While the United States intelligence community definitively connected Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the scheme to assassinate Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Trump chose to believe bin Salman over his own national intelligence sources. On multiple occasions, Trump reiterated his trust in MBS’ denial of his involvement in the Khashoggi murder. This raises the legitimate question of whether or not Trump’s business dealings with the Saudis played a role in the lack of accountability under his administration for the reprehensible murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Additionally, in 2019, the Trump administration pushed through an $8.1 billion arms deal with the Saudi government and its coalition partners in Yemen. Despite strong bipartisan pushback from both chambers of U.S. Congress, Trump disregarded the overwhelming disapproval of the weapons deal. Both Democrats and Republicans alike had called for the deal to not go through, citing the fact that the arms were being used in indiscriminate and devastating Saudi-led coalition attacks in Yemen, which were killing a disturbing number of innocent civilians. Even in the face of this consensus over problems with the arms sales, Trump pushed the deal through, displaying a priority for appeasing Saudi officials instead of heeding serious human rights concerns.

The Kushner Connection

While the Trump administration was in office, there was never an ambassador to permanently stay in Riyadh, a taboo policy decision at first glance considering the close relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia under the Trump White House. However, the Saudi government had something better, Trump’s favorite advisor, his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner was directly targeted by the Saudis as a key figure within the Trump White House via which they could gain policy leverage. Kushner became the go-to figure and a close middleman to both sides, allowing the Saudi regime to have easy access to the president and often arranging meetings directly with Trump.

It is clear that the Saudi tactics of catering to the former President and his son-in-law’s business egos worked. Under the Trump presidency, no repercussions for the Khashoggi murder were ever enforced for the Saudis, and specifically for MBS. Billions in arms deals, which was strongly spoken out against including in his own party, were used in the worst humanitarian crisis currently in the world. Thus, the Saudis’ ability to manipulate the Trump White House into allowing them to engage in illegal acts also worked in securing arms deals, and the American weapons were used in the devastating Saudi-led coalition’s attacks on Yemen.

U.S. Standards on Human Rights

In the post-Cold War era, United States foreign policy decisions have largely been framed as part of a grand strategy which places a major focus on the issue of human rights. Almost every administration, upon entering the White House, makes it clear that one of their main foreign policy priorities is to ensure human rights are respected internationally. However, the complicated U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia undermine that grand foreign policy strategy. The United States’ support of the Saudi regime, which was at especially high levels during the Trump administration, is often criticized by rights and social justice advocates. While the U.S. is firmer in its denouncement of other regimes for their human rights abuses, Saudi Arabia does not generally receive the same surface-level condemnation from the United States.

This inconsistency has hurt the United States’ reputation in this regard amongst the international community, and any dismissal of blatant Saudi abuses only serves to undermine the United States’ status as an across-the-board defender of human rights. Thus, rights advocates emphasize the need to strongly call out violations wherever they take place. As future administrations seek to engage with the international community in the Middle East, a necessary recalibration in which the Saudi regime’s actions are more strongly spoken out against is integral to successful and respected foreign policy initiatives.

Biden’s Relationship with Saudi Arabia

In the aftermath of Trump’s departure from the White House, it appears that the Biden administration has made a cognizant effort to try and adopt a firmer stance towards the Saudi government. Biden has yet to meet directly with the Crown Prince and publicly called him “a killer” on the campaign trail. While the current administration has somewhat cooled relations, it is also clear that further work needs to be done to address ongoing human rights concerns, particularly in Yemen. As the Biden White House has on numerous occasions proclaimed that human rights are at the forefront of its foreign policy strategy, in order to provide unwavering credibility for this, they must stay clear of Trump era actions which further emboldened Saudi crimes against humanity.

It would be misleading to say that the Biden administration is a perfect flip from Trump era Saudi policies. Although Biden has spoken out in sharper terms against Saudi Arabian human rights abuses, the Biden White House and Democrats must create strong measures to hold the Saudis directly accountable for both their actions in Yemen and their internal transgressions as well.

Currently, as gas prices soar in the United States, some analysts have theorized that the Saudis – being a major force in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – have halted gas production in retaliation for Biden’s public sentiments towards the actions of Mohammed bin Salman. Rather than bend to the Saudis’ will, it is imperative that Biden holds firm and outmaneuvers them. While Saudi Arabia’s role and leverage on gas prices is only a small part of a larger and more complex issue, it highlights their intention to pull other foreign governments in the direction that they want in order to deflect away from serious rights violations.

Recently, in the United States Congress, a new attempt to prohibit the sale of arms being used to attack civilians in Yemen is on its way to the Senate after passing in the House. Even with the notion being bipartisan, advocates worry that it will be a futile attempt once again and will die on the Senate floor. Biden has yet to comment on the specific bill, but if the president wants to display that he is indeed abiding by his vocal sentiment, then a path should be paved for it to be signed into law.

While the Biden administration has voiced the appropriate sentiment, verbally condemning the Saudi human rights abuses, what is needed next is strong and bold action. With respect to the Khashoggi murder, Crown Prince bin Salman has yet to face tangible repercussions for his involvement. Furthermore, the Saudi war in Yemen continues to cause mass human suffering and ultimately words alone are simply not enough to form fundamental change. Instead, more consequential action is needed for the Biden administration to live up to its aim of truly being human rights-focused.

Conclusion

The Saudi regime has a long and documented history of engaging in egregious human rights abuses. They have consistently violated fundamental basic freedoms against those who express viable concerns with the government’s policies. In Yemen, the United Nations and rights groups have found that Saudi Arabia is the root culprit of the worst humanitarian crisis currently unfolding. The crisis, which kills a child every ten minutes, has been caused by Saudi-led airstrikes and its longstanding blockade. Before and during the Trump presidency, the Saudi regime took part in various business dealings which financially benefited Trump and led to the administration’s implementation of actions that emboldened Saudi human rights violations and undermined American foreign policy priorities and principles.

NIF USA