Butterfly Effect: In a Trump 2.0, MBZ Could Be the New MBS - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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The U.S. president is hedging his bets in the Middle East, and he’s not depending only on Saudi Arabia.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

Silence. That’s how Saudi Arabia has greeted the historic peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, announced last Thursday. Its neighbors have either hailed the agreement or termed it a betrayal of the Palestinian people. But Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s most powerful nation, has yet to say a word.

That’s no coincidence. The Israel-UAE deal has several clear beneficiaries, including the two signatories and U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration facilitated the pact and who can claim it as a key diplomatic win ahead of the November presidential election. But while the most vocal opposition to the agreement has come from the Palestinian leadership, Iran and Turkey, it is Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have been left in the most uncomfortable position. And the moment might hold pointers to Trump’s strategy for the future of the Middle East should he return to power.

The deal comes amid signs of rare friction between Riyadh and Washington that have largely gone unnoticed. Earlier this month, the Department of State criticized Saudi Arabia’s “detention” of the children of a former Saudi intelligence official now in Canada who has accused Crown Prime Mohammed — better known as MBS — of trying to assassinate him. The State Department called for the “immediate release” of the children.

Reading too much into that statement by itself might be folly. But the U.S.-brokered deal between Israel and the UAE comes at a time that Abu Dhabi, after living in the shadow of Riyadh for decades, is flexing its diplomatic muscles like never before, trying to carve out an identity independent of Saudi Arabia. During the pandemic, it has supplied aid to two of Riyadh’s sworn enemies: Shiite-majority Iran and Bashar Assad–led Syria. Now, as the first Gulf state to commit to diplomatic relations with Israel, the UAE is further breaking the shackles that have bound it to Saudi Arabia. And that might prompt other Arab states to take diplomatic positions independent of Riyadh: Already, Oman and Bahrain have praised the deal.

Trump’s statement last week during the announcement of the Israel-UAE agreement that he would negotiate a deal with Iran within 30 days if he returns to power might have been nothing more than typical bombast. Yet it offers insights into what the president would like to do should he win a second term — and the idea of a U.S.-Iran détente would not have pleased MBS.

Saudi Arabia itself has covert ties with Israel and can’t afford to jeopardize relations with the U.S., so it can’t oppose the agreement involving the UAE. Yet it can’t publicly support the embrace between Israel and the UAE either, as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest shrines. The question of Palestinian statehood remains an emotional one in Arab streets. And a visible tilt toward Israel would alienate sentiment, benefiting Iran, Riyadh’s principal regional rival that has consistently backed the Palestinian cause.

So what exactly is happening here? While there’s plenty we don’t know, one thing is clear: Trump, who made Saudi Arabia his first overseas destination after coming to power, is now hedging his bets. To be sure, MBS remains a close ally. He’s a good friend of Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. But Trump appears willing to inconvenience MBS if it suits his political needs, by letting the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed — widely known as MBZ — steal Riyadh’s thunder. MBZ, like MBS, effectively rules his country. On Monday, Kushner told reporters that establishing diplomatic ties with Israel was in Saudi Arabia’s interests, even though such public comments only discomfit Riyadh.

If Trump — who is currently trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in polling — does win reelection and indeed moves toward negotiations with Iran, it would further complicate MBS’ choices in the region. Does Trump play spoiler? Can he sit on the fence? Or does he play peacemaker like MBZ?

Whatever you might think of Trump, the Israel-UAE deal represents a diplomatic victory for him. And on the chessboard that is Middle Eastern politics, he has just pushed MBS into making some hard choices if he wants to stay at the center of America’s regional game plan.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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