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A most tumultuous year: How support for MBS pushed Trump into a corner

US president ends year in isolation amid his backing of Saudi crown prince after murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi
US Senate voted in December to halt assistance to Saudi-led coalition in Yemen (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Analysts have long said that Donald Trump views foreign policy as transactional.

So it was little surprise that he refused to allow the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to stand in the way of business.

Trump said it himself when he pointed to Riyadh's supposed $450bn investment in the US as he vowed to remain "a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia" in the aftermath of the killing.

"If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries," Trump said in November, at the height of global outrage over Khashoggi's assassination in Istanbul a month earlier.

Standing by Riyadh aimed "to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region", he said in a statement at the time.

But beyond his incendiary and widely criticised statement, Trump's handling of Khashoggi's murder highlighted the nature of his foreign policy toward countries in the Gulf, where economic gain appears to matter more than Washington's strategic long-term goals.

While 2018 also saw the Trump administration make other policy decisions in the Gulf - from repairing US relations with Qatar to ending mid-air refuelling of Saudi jets participating in the Yemen war - it was defined by Trump's insistence on defending Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid the Khashoggi crisis.

Here's a look at Trump's tumultuous year in relations with Gulf nations.

Standing with MBS

In a rare instance of bipartisanship, every US senator backed a resolution in December saying they believe the Saudi crown prince, known as MBS, "is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi".

While the measure was symbolic, it nonetheless sent a scathing message not only to Riyadh, but also to the White House, which has stood by MBS despite the outrage that spread to some of Trump's staunchest defenders in Congress.

Khashoggi, a journalist who was often critical of the Saudi royal family, was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

The death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident who had personal ties to top officials and analysts in the US capital, shook Saudi-US ties to their core.

Even hawkish conservatives who view Riyadh as essential to Washington's strategic goals in the wider Middle East region, including as a counterpoint to Iran and as protection for Israel, began to question the utility of the partnership with a kingdom led by bin Salman.

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Congress's anger was fuelled by the CIA's conclusion that the crown prince ordered the assassination of Khashoggi.

Still, Trump would not budge, while Riyadh repeatedly denyied the crown prince's involvement, opting instead to put the blame on a group of Saudis that included some of MBS's top advisers.

Trump's statements in the aftermath of the killing only went as far as criticising how the murder was carried out. "They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups," he said in late October.

On 20 November, in his statement on Saudi Arabia after the assassination, Trump drew condemnations for attempting to smear Khashoggi.

Trump quoted Saudi officials as saying that Khashoggi was an 'enemy of the state' (Reuters)

He quoted Saudi officials as saying that the late journalist was an "'enemy of the state and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood", a claim that has been rebuked by members of the Khashoggi family.

"In a bizarre, inaccurate and rambling statement - one offering a good reminder why Twitter has character limits - President Trump whitewashed the Saudi government’s brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi," Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan wrote in a column the following day.

A few weeks after Trump's remarks, Khashoggi was among a group of journalists who were named Time Magazine's Person of the Year.

Although the international news cycle has largely moved on from the Khashoggi assassination, Trump remains alone in attempting to shield the crown prince from fallout at all costs.

With the US House of Representative set to be dominated by Democrats in the new year, US politicians have vowed to investigate the president's dealings with the kingdom.

Scrutiny over US role in Yemen

In his last Washington Post column published while he was still alive, Khashoggi urged MBS to end the war in Yemen.

Ironically, his death brought unprecedented scrutiny to Riyadh's war efforts in the impoverished country, as well as to Washington's role in the conflict.

Saudi Arabia launched a wide-scale military operation in Yemen in 2015 - during the tenure of then-US President Barack Obama - to root out the country's Houthi rebels, who had taken over the capital Sanaa and ousted Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Washington, which views the Houthis as a proxy force for Iran, was on board from the get-go.

But as casualties mounted to the tens of thousands by some estimates, and Yemen became the world's worst humanitarian crisis, backing the Saudis began losing its status as the default position for the power centres in Washington.

In a stunning rejection of Trump's relations with Riyadh, the US Senate voted in December to end US military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The senators invoked the War Powers Resolution of 1973 for the first time ever, which gives Congress the power to stop US involvement in military interventions authorised solely by the White House.

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A similar measure stalled in the House of Representative, as lawmakers from Trump's Republican Party, who still controlled the chamber, managed to prevent it from being debated and presented for a full vote.

However, the growing awareness of the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and the newly found scepticism towards Riyadh has raised troubling questions for the White House over its logistical and political support for the war.

In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were making an adequate effort to minimise civilian casualties, an assertion that was backed by then Pentagon chief James Mattis.

The announcement came about a month after a Saudi air strike on a school bus killed dozens in northern Yemen in an attack that Human Rights Watch said was an "apparent war crime".

Still, by October, even the Trump administration was calling for an end to the war.

"It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction," Pompeo said in a statement late in October, as pro-coalition forces closed in on the port city of Hodeidah, threatening to choke the lifeline for humanitarian aid into Yemen.

The secretary of state's comments were followed by a decision from the White House to stop mid-air refueling for Saudi jets headed for missions in Yemen.

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Those steps towards resolving the conflict, however, had little effect as lawmakers tried to force Trump's hand.

In December, Mattis and Pompeo asked members of the House of Representatives in a briefing "to continue the military advising, logistics support and intelligence that have for years been shared with Saudi Arabia", the New York Times reported.

But with an anti-war bill that has cleared the Senate, in the new year a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is expected to pass the measure to force Trump to end US assistance for Saudi Arabia's war, setting up another showdown over relations with Riyadh.

Trump can veto the legislation, which would then need a two-thirds majority in Congress to pass.

U-turn on Qatar

Early in the year, Trump appeared to make an aboutface on Qatar, praising the tiny Gulf nation for its "counter-terrorism" efforts, a stark contradiction to how the US president previously accused Doha of funding militant groups "at a very high level".

In June 2017 Trump appeared to take credit for the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, fully backing his allies in Riyadh in their efforts to isolate Doha, against the advice of his top aides, who had called for end to the diplomatic impasse.

But in April of this year, Trump hosted Qatar's ruler Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at the White House and lauded him as a "great gentleman" who is "very popular in his country".

Trump was clear that he views Gulf rulers, including the Qatari emir, as ideal customers for US goods, particularly weapons.

Trump hailed Al Thani as a 'great gentleman' (Reuters)

"We have a gentleman, on my right, who buys a lot of equipment from us. A lot of purchases in the United States, and a lot of military airplanes, missiles - lots of different things," Trump said during the White House meeting, after which Al Thani pledged to double Qatar's US purchases in the coming years.

The blockade would later resurface in the US Congress in a proposed Senate resolution seeking to denounce Saudi Arabia's bin Salman for the murder of Khashoggi.

Monitoring oil prices

The US president also openly praised, threatened and even raged against Arab countries - particularly Saudi Arabia - over oil prices throughout 2018.

With casual reminders that the US military defends oil-producing countries in the Middle East, he called for an increased output to drive prices down.

"We protect Saudi Arabia — would you say they’re rich?" Trump asked supporters at a campaign rally in early October. "And I love the king, King Salman, but I said, 'King, we’re protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military, you have to pay.'"

Yet even in the midst of the Khashoggi crisis, Trump expressed gratitude to Saudi Arabia for low oil prices.

"Oil prices getting lower," he wrote on Twitter. "Great! Like a big Tax Cut for America and the World. Enjoy! $54, was just $82. Thank you to Saudi Arabia, but let’s go lower!"

However, analysts have questioned the impact of Saudi Arabia's oil output on prices, and some have said the market is bracing for a drop in demand because of a forecast for slow growth caused partly by Trump's trade wars and erratic economic policies.

This is part two of two Middle East Eye reports on Donald Trump's 2018 Middle East policy decisions. To read part one, which zeroes in on Trump's policies towards Palestine, Syria, Iran and Turkey, click here.