Activists have defied the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia by getting behind the wheel. Photo: Getty
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Is Saudi Arabia seeking friends?

Saudi Arabia’s poor record on human rights and its treatment of women make it easy to demonise the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has always been concerned with one aim – political survival. Since the kingdom’s creation in 1932 with the aid of the British Colonial Office in the Arabian Peninsula, political analysts have frequently predicted its imminent collapse. All of them have been proved wrong. In large part, the key to Saudi’s survival has been its special relationship with the United States. This is enshrined in the 1928 Red Line Agreement, which the US exploited to gain exclusive rights to Saudi oil exploration after the First World War.

And yet, in the 1980s and at the turn of the 2oth century, Saudi Arabia unwittingly limited its political options. First, as Peter Schweizer revealed in his cold war history Victory, during the Reagan administration the Saudis worked with the CIA on a plan to bring down the Soviet Union by increasing Saudi crude oil production, thereby triggering a collapse in global oil prices.

This wasn’t entirely in the Saudis’ interest: the Soviet Union’s collapse deprived them of an alternative superpower with which they could work, in certain circumstances, to safeguard their own interests.

A decade later, the Saudis supported the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Iraq was destroyed, depriving them of a powerful ally and a counterbalance to Iran’s regional ambitions. Today, Saudi Arabia stands alone in the Middle East as Iran’s influence grows, bolstered by the pro-Iranian regimes of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as well as Hezbollah and the Houthi Shia tribe found in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia’s poor record on human rights and its treatment of women make it easy to demonise the kingdom. This, coupled with its oil resources and vast international cash reserves, encourages friends and foes alike to support local opposition groups that destabilise the country.

At the same time, its historic support of religious extremists is no longer a viable way for it to gain regional influence, and is counterproductive if it wants to maintain a close relationship with Washington.

There is, however, one option open to Saudi Arabia if it wants to maintain the stability of the kingdom and challenge Iran: it should convince the US to stop arming the Iraqi government and persuade it to put pressure on al-Maliki to end his violent sectarian policies. US weapons are being used by the Iranian al-Quds Force to crush the Iraqi opposition and kill innocent civilians. The Saudis should also offer active support to those Iraqis resisting al-Maliki’s rule, such as by providing training camps to members of the former Iraqi national army, disbanded by Viceroy Paul Bremer in 2003.

In the face of potentially existential threats, a politically, economically and militarily powerful Iraq would no doubt enhance Saudi Arabia’s chances of political survival, against all the odds.

Burhan Al-Chalabi is the publisher of the London Magazine

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Donald Trump's healthcare failure could be to his advantage

The appearance of weakness is less electorally damaging than actually removing healthcare from millions of people.

Good morning. Is it all over for Donald Trump? His approval ratings have cratered to below 40%. Now his attempt to dismantle Barack Obama's healthcare reforms have hit serious resistance from within the Republican Party, adding to the failures and retreats of his early days in office.

The problem for the GOP is that their opposition to Obamacare had more to do with the word "Obama" than the word "care". The previous President opted for a right-wing solution to the problem of the uninsured in a doomed attempt to secure bipartisan support for his healthcare reform. The politician with the biggest impact on the structures of the Affordable Care Act is Mitt Romney.

But now that the Republicans control all three branches of government they are left in a situation where they have no alternative to Obamacare that wouldn't either a) shred conservative orthodoxies on healthcare or b) create numerous and angry losers in their constituencies. The difficulties for Trump's proposal is that it does a bit of both.

Now the man who ran on his ability to cut a deal has been forced to make a take it or leave plea to Republicans in the House of Representatives: vote for this plan or say goodbye to any chance of repealing Obamacare.

But that's probably good news for Trump. The appearance of weakness and failure is less electorally damaging than actually succeeding in removing healthcare from millions of people, including people who voted for Trump.

Trump won his first term because his own negatives as a candidate weren't quite enough to drag him down on a night when he underperformed Republican candidates across the country. The historical trends all make it hard for a first-term incumbent to lose. So far, Trump's administration is largely being frustrated by the Republican establishment though he is succeeding in leveraging the Presidency for the benefit of his business empire.

But it may be that in the failure to get anything done he succeeds in once again riding Republican coattails to victory in 2020.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.