How do you get Trump to criticize Saudi Arabia? Talk about arms deals.

Adam Taylor

Foreign reporter who writes about a variety of subjects

Since President Trump took office, he has become a vocal — if, given his history, somewhat unlikely — supporter of Saudi Arabia. His first trip abroad after taking office was to Riyadh; since then, he has expressed support for the controversial reforms that are being led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Even after the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last week prompted angry and critical statements from U.S. lawmakers, the president offered a muted response. “This took place in Turkey,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “And to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen. Is that right?”

Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, has been a U.S. resident.

Trump hasn’t always been so deferential to Saudi Arabia: He has repeatedly criticized the Saudi government and other U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf region in ways that have not always gained attention in the United States, but have caused consternation at times in the Middle East.

But these moments of criticism have not been in response to issues surrounding human rights or the persecution of dissidents, as in the case of Khashoggi. Instead, they have been focused on arms sales and other financial issues. These aspects of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship have long existed, but are rarely made as public as they are under the Trump administration.

One of Trump’s most stinging criticisms of Saudi Arabia came the same day Khashoggi disappeared. At a campaign rally on Oct. 2 in Southaven, Miss., Trump told the crowd that Saudi Arabia would collapse without U.S. support.

“We protect Saudi Arabia — would you say they’re rich?” Trump asked the crowd. “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.’”

Trump has made some variations of this comment in the past. In April, while appearing at a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, he made a critical reference to unnamed allies in the Middle East who he thought were not doing enough to help Syria.

“Countries that are in the area, some of which are immensely wealthy, would not be there except for the United States and, to a lesser extent, France,” Trump said. “They wouldn’t be there except for the United States. They wouldn’t last a week. We are protecting them. They have to now step up and pay for what is happening.”

At times, he has made these comments directly to his Saudi counterparts. When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Washington in March, Trump pulled out a sign that showed a number of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, before stopping to tell the crown prince that the costs were “peanuts” for the oil-rich kingdom. “You should have increased it,” he told Mohammed, as the crown prince laughed.

This isn’t just for show. In May, Trump sent a letter to a number of Gulf allies that asked them to do more in countries such as Syria and urged them to find a quick resolution to the dispute between a Saudi-led bloc and Qatar.

The private letter came to light after it was unexpectedly mentioned in a speech by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said that Trump wrote to his allies: “I spent $7 trillion, and you must do something in return.” It was unclear how the Iranian leader, a major rival for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, had seen the letter.

Trump has repeatedly brought up the $7 trillion figure in public comments; it is an inaccurate reference for the cost of the wars in the Middle East.

Trump’s criticism has not gone without notice in the Middle East. After his comments in April, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a well-known Emirati political commentator, tweeted to the U.S. president on Tuesday that his country and others will survive after Trump is gone. However, Gulf allies have avoided publicly responding to Trump’s remarks.

Much of Trump’s frustration with Saudi Arabia is because he believes the country has not fulfilled its commitment to buy U.S. weapons. When the crown prince had visited in March, he had signed an agreement in which the kingdom pledged $110 billion in U.S. arms, but last month Riyadh let expire a deadline for a $15 billion purchase of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system, despite a 20 percent discount.

It is unclear why the Saudis allowed that deal to expire, given their concern about missiles from Houthis in Yemen. The kingdom also had been exploring a purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, however.

On Thursday, as criticism of Saudi Arabia swirled in Washington, Trump returned to the issue of weapons sales, too. “We don’t like it, and we don’t like it even a little bit,” Trump said of Khashoggi’s disappearance. “But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing they have four or five alternatives, two of them very good alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me.”

The $110 billion figure has been widely disputed: The Washington Post’s Fact Checker Glenn Kessler says the number is “fanciful and unlikely to come to fruition,” while Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution has called it “fake news,” as the figure includes letters of interest or intent, rather than actual contracts, and many of the deals identified were actually reached under the Obama administration.

Even so, although Trump may have repeatedly put pressure on Saudi Arabia to buy more American weapons and share more costs in the Middle East, his remarks after Khashoggi’s disappearance suggest that Riyadh may have considerable leverage in its relationship with Washington.

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