One is 74 years old, the other less than half that age. One wears dark blue business suits to meetings, while the other dons a black bisht and checkered keffiyeh headdress. One is known for his short attention span and rambling sentences, the other for his strategic ability and focused rhetoric. One leads the most dominant superpower in the world; the other reigns over a remote desert kingdom seeking to assert regional influence.   

Despite these contrasts, the President of the United States and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia are, in many ways, two men of the same mold. Both were born to extremely wealthy fathers and earned distinction through their familial connections. Both competed ruthlessly in their climb to power, vanquishing rivals without remorse. Both use their status to intimidate critics, either with insults and lies or with imprisonment and torture. Both manipulate the modern-day media to project deceptive images of themselves. And both view norms, laws, and institutions as ethically irrelevant obstructions to their consolidation of power.  

Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman (known internationally as MBS) first met in Riyadh in the spring of 2017, three months after the President’s inauguration and one month before the Crown Prince’s elevation to his current role. At the time, Trump was facing serious criticism at home for his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, while MBS was working behind the scenes in Saudi Arabia to engineer the ouster of his elder cousin Muhammad bin Nayef, the one man ahead of him in the Saudi line of succession. MBS was already the Minister of Defense and held considerable sway over his father, King Salman, but his ascendance to total authority would come only once he became heir apparent to the throne.  

The visit was Trump’s first stop on his first foreign trip as president. The American delegation, consisting of the President and the First Lady, Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, and several members of the President’s cabinet, was met with much pomp and circumstance by the Saudi royal family. Cavalry processions flanking the American motorcade, formal ceremonies held in grand palaces, and displays of the President’s face across sky-rises signified renewed strength in the US-Saudi alliance.   

But the fanfare represented more than just a celebration of a revived partnership. The Saudis knew their American guest was prone to psychological influence, and that showing adoration for Trump would allow them to use him to their strategic advantage. Trump has famously catered to foreign leaders who have praised or helped him, and the Saudis were ready to hold up their side of the bargain. Topping the Saudis’ wish list was assistance from the US in countering Iranian ambitions and in backing Saudi efforts to establish regional dominance.   

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been locked in what has been termed a “Middle Eastern Cold War” for decades. Once Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, leaders of both nations have considered the other as a serious threat to their principal national security interests. For the Saudi royal family, those interests comprise the preservation of their regime, their status as the religious leaders of the Islamic world, and their role as the dominant regional player. Naturally, Iran’s goals of exporting their revolution abroad, claiming their place as the legitimate Muslim state, and achieving Middle Eastern hegemony would create serious tension between the two countries. Given that the Saudi royal family is Sunni and the Ayatollah is Shia, there is also a sectarian aspect to the hostility. Since the early ‘80s, the two countries have engaged in proxy wars against one another in countries across the Middle East.   

At the time of Trump’s visit, Saudi Arabia had recently taken a bold and unprecedented step, deploying its own military against an Iranian-backed militia in a bordering state. In 2015, the Shia Houthi rebels were advancing toward the capital of Yemen. As Minister of Defense, MBS felt that the threat was urgent, and initiated an offensive in support of the Yemeni central government without receiving any authorization for the move from President Obama. Many elders in the royal family opposed what they considered a rash war, but MBS prevailed. Soon, the Yemen campaign was known as “Mohammed bin Salman’s war.”  

Two years later in Riyadh, Trump and the Saudis agreed to an arms deal worth over $100 billion. In exchange, the Saudis offered to help Jared Kushner in his effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to journalist Martin Smith, “for the Saudis, the trip had been a great triumph. They had been reassured that Trump had their back.”    

At the time, Trump’s embrace of MBS didn’t anger American progressives in the way his relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines did. When MBS became crown prince, his ascension was initially met with much excitement. As the de facto ruler of his kingdom (in his old age, King Salman has ceded almost all powers to his son), MBS suddenly set the kingdom in a new direction. He began implementing his new plan for Saudi Arabia’s future, which called for ambitious social and economic reforms. The framework, known as Vision 2030, aimed to diversify the Saudi economy by reducing its dependence on oil, investing in the technology, entertainment, and tourism sectors, and increasing women’s participation in the workforce.    

Hailed as a visionary in his homeland and abroad, pundits credited MBS for remaking the Saudis’ global image as a softer, more secular, and more outward-looking regional power. Under his watch, Saudi Arabia lifted its moratorium on constructing movie theatres, reigned in the religious police, and rescinded a ban on female driving.    

In 2018, MBS traveled to the United States, where he used Western media markets to reinforce his improving reputation around the world. He traded his traditional Arabian attire for blazers and oxfords before meeting with tech moguls, Wall Street financiers, media magnates, and entertainment leaders. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Steve Schwarzman, Rupert Murdoch, Oprah Winfrey, and even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson were among those he charmed. He gave an interview on 60 Minutes. His face appeared on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek and Time. And of course, MBS stopped by the White House, where his ally President Trump urged him to agree to yet another arms deal. 

But back home, something quite at odds with the magazine photoshoots was going on. Despite the economic and social reforms, Saudi Arabia was not experiencing any progress in the political sphere. The country was regressing politically, descending into a police state ruled under the iron fist of MBS.   

In the months before his coast-to-coast American journey, MBS summoned hundreds of Saudi businessmen, government officials, and royals for interrogation at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, ostensibly on charges of corruption. Many of them stayed in their suites for months, unable to leave until they complied with MBS’s demands. During what came to be known as the “Saudi purge,” some were tortured, and one even died in the hotel. President Trump tweeted his support for the roundup.   

Soon after returning from America, MBS ordered the arrests of many well-known Saudi women’s rights activists. To the outside world, MBS projected respect for the feminist movement, enacting changes, such as the lifting of a longstanding driving ban on women. But according to Saudi feminist Madawi Al-Rasheed, “Mohammed bin Salman realized that the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia is not simply about driving…it’s about rights…So they were not going to stop at driving a car. Their project was bigger than driving a car. The car was a symbol of their oppression.” Reports indicate that many of the feminists were beaten, waterboarded, and sexually abused while in prison.    

The most infamous incident of MBS’s brutality came in the fall of 2018. Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist once close to the Saudi royal family, had fled the country and was writing in exile for The Washington Post. His columns were frequently critical of MBS, angering the young prince. On October 2, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up papers for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish academic. He would not leave the building alive.  

A team of assassins allegedly carved up Khashoggi’s body while he was still breathing. They then had a body double wear Khashoggi’s clothes and depart the consulate so that CCTV footage would indicate he had left. Turkish police saw right through it; the body double wasn’t even wearing the right shoes. Days later, President Trump declared it “the worst cover-up in the history of cover-ups.”   

But Trump would not throw his Saudi friend under the bus. In the days after the killing, the Saudi royals first denied that Khashoggi had been killed at all, then declared it had been a rogue assassination by low-level Saudi goons. President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton did not challenge this assessment. Even after the CIA announced that the order to kill had most likely come from MBS himself, the Trump administration did not change course. It was not the first time Trump officials ignored their intelligence agencies, and it certainly would not be the last.

Trump’s devotion to MBS inhibited his administration’s ability to address the Saudis’ complex role in sectarian conflicts across the region. Over 500,000 civilian lives have been lost, and many millions more displaced, in the Middle East due to sectarian wars fueled by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. In Lebanon, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a political party and militant group, has terrorized the country and stoked violence across its borders since the early ‘80s. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq left a vacuum of power, the nation descended into a vicious conflict between Sunni militias funded by the Saudis and Shia militias funded by the Iranians. During the 2011 uprising in Bahrain, the Saudis defended the Bahraini royals from Shia insurgents. And in Yemen, the civil war has entered a brutal period, with widespread starvation and the largest cholera outbreak in the world.    

In almost all of these conflicts, the Saudis assist central governments trying to quell rebellions, while the Iranians support militias attempting to overthrow existing regimes. (One notable exception is Syria, where the Iranians actively support the tyrant Bashar-al-Assad, their one reliable ally in the region). Both sides see themselves as righteous combatants in the fight for the direction of the Muslim World. The Saudis believe they are defending the Islamic faith from violent heretical rebels. The Iranians believe they are battling a holy war to overthrow the oppressive, Western-backed regimes of the Middle East.   

Evidence suggests that the rivalry may soon enter a dangerous new phase. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that the CIA is examining the possibility of a covert Saudi nuclear weapons program. According to the article, the Saudis may be using a joint nuclear energy program with the Chinese government as cover for a plan to develop weapons.    

This development is unsurprising from a historical perspective. In the past, arms races have accompanied competition between adversarial nations divided by ambition, religion, and ideology. The military buildup in Europe before World War I, the nuclearization of India and Pakistan during the late 20th century, and of course the Cold War military-industrial expansions of the United States and the Soviet Union serve as prominent examples of this dynamic. When one country believes that its rival has developed superior capabilities, it will feel a need to keep up. So, Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program after the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) makes the Saudi nuclear push all but inevitable.    

In 2015, in a move that  enraged the Saudi royal family, President Obama initiated an international agreement with Iran to limit the nation’s nuclear capabilities for 15 years in exchange for reducing sanctions. According to Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Saudi fears of the JCPOA were rooted in “their belief that Iran seeks regional hegemony and uses terrorism and subversion to achieve it…lifting sanctions removed Iran’s isolation as a rogue state and gives it more income. [The Saudis believe] Iran’s ambition to be the region’s hegemon is fueled not reduced by the deal.”   

Many others criticized the JCPOA, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republicans in Washington, who invited Netanyahu to speak in Congress to oppose it. It’s hard to tell whether their disapproval was at all justified because the agreement essentially ceased to exist within five years of its inception. However, the paranoid nightmare of Iranian dominance shared by many Saudis, Israelis, and Republicans always seemed far-fetched.  

As in most of his decisions, Trump committed to undoing whatever his predecessor had done. He formally withdrew from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018, and imposed harsh new sanctions on Iran. If Obama had perhaps invited Iranian foreign influence by welcoming them more fully into global markets and strengthening their economy, Trump certainly pushed Iran to become more intent on disrupting the order of the Middle East by isolating it further. 

Throughout its history, Iran has shown that it does not simply surrender to outside pressure; it gains a certain strength when it is cornered. When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran immediately after the Ayatollah’s revolution in 1980, backed by the West, the newly formed Iranian government channeled nationalist fervor into military action and recruited hundreds of thousands of young men to fight. Iran not only beat back the Iraqi offensive but proceeded to invade Iraq.   

Adding to the Iranian threat is the fact that Iran is not as economically isolated as Trump might wish. Since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran has developed stronger economic ties with other countries still in the JCPOA, most notably China. This relationship may enable the Iranians to develop a nuclear capability even quicker. 

President Trump’s decision in January to assassinate Iranian general Qasem Soleimeini essentially marked the death knell of the JCPOA. In the aftermath of the killing, Iranians rallying in the streets burned American flags, and Iran’s National Security Council announced that “The Islamic Republic of Iran will end its final limitations in the nuclear deal, meaning the limitation in the number of centrifuges. Therefore Iran’s nuclear program will have no limitations in production including enrichment capacity and percentage and number of enriched uranium and research and expansion.”    

It will probably take several years at least for Iran or Saudi Arabia to develop the capacity to stockpile nuclear weapons. But should either of these countries succeed, the consequences will likely be severe.   

The most dangerous threat posed by nuclear proliferation in the Persian Gulf is not necessarily the possibility of a detonated warhead (though that is of course highly worrying). More immediately concerning is the fact that nuclear arms would give Saudi Arabia or Iran a certain immunity to outside interference. Many regimes seek nuclear arms because the weapons strongly discourage other powers from meddling in their affairs. For example, the United States would be taking a massive risk if it attacked North Korea; if North Korea didn’t have nuclear weapons, such a move would not be nearly as risky.   

Furthermore, American foreign policy over recent decades has not dissuaded foreign leaders from believing that nuclear weapons are critical to the survival of their regimes. Two Middle Eastern dictators, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, gave up their nuclear programs (Saddam’s program was of course less obviously over, but he did not have any serious program when the US invaded in 2003). Both were ousted by Western military coalitions.  

If Iran acquires a nuclear stockpile, it will feel more empowered to subvert existing power structures in the Middle East and further its agenda. The Iranians will no longer worry that if they overreach, the US or Israel will attack them directly. And if Saudi Arabia acquires nuclear warheads, it will be freed from the constraints of the US nuclear umbrella. No longer dependent on the Americans for protection should Iran threaten them, the Saudis could act in the Middle East with impunity. The West would find it more difficult to rein MBS in if he decided to meddle in regional disputes.

If MBS’s nuclear ambitions come to fruition, he will have played Trump in the most obvious and alarming way. He will have convinced Trump to help him in the short term with his regional interests before turning to Trump’s supposedly greatest enemy, Xi Jinping, for help in undermining the long-term security interests of the United States.   

President Trump’s actions are adding fuel to the fire in an already unstable area. Should his reckless gambits lead to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, our desire to see the region settle down will be little more than a pipe dream. We will have even less control over the proxy wars, civilian casualties, and migrant flows that follow. And in MBS, Trump will have empowered one of the most ruthless tyrants in the world.

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