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On oily grounds: Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia becoming slippery

Donald Trump called Saudi Arabia King, Salman bin Abdulaziz, on Saturday, as a follow-up on his criticism of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) at the United Nations General Assembly last week. Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter and de-facto leader of OPEC. The onus lies with them.

The US President and the 82-year-old Monarch discussed efforts to arrest rising oil prices, triggered essentially by the economic collapse in Venezuela and the US sanctions on Iran that have created a huge gap in crude oil stockpile, leading to rise in price. It is nearly $80 a barrel and Trump wants them to pump more.

“OPEC nations are, as usual, ripping off the rest of the world and I don’t like it,” Trump said in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday. “We want them to stop raising prices. We want them to start lowering prices and they must contribute substantially to military protection from now on.”

Two days before Trump’s hard-hitting speech, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih had refused the President’s demand, saying they would boost the crude oil output only if the customers requested it. In essence, he defied the US call.

Leaving a legacy

Trump is at the fag end of his Presidency and unlike his predecessors, one of the things he wants to be remembered for is bringing the September 11 perpetrators and their harbourers to justice despite all the pleasant photo-ops he indulges in with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Could the President have used that as a trump card in his telephone call?

It’s possible that Trump would have hinted at reviving the ghosts of 9/11 if the Saudis did not act on containing oil prices and producing more. Trump is a nationalist and is not known to mince words. What good is Saudi Arabia to the US if the only element, oil, on which the bond was built, is now causing them headache?

The days of fossil fuel are numbered anyway.

Double whammy

There is a growing clamor for declassification of the pages along with allegations about attempts by the Saudis to keep their role in the attacks hidden. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, which involved 13 Saudi terrorists, was a product of state-sponsored terrorism. Saudi Arabia’s links with Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda is well-documented.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which was passed by both houses of Congress in September 2016, has made it legal for US citizens to sue the Saudis in US Courts for its involvement in the September 11 attacks. Saudis had threatened to sell off $750bn of American assets they held if the bill was passed.

But JASTA will take time to have tangible effect and President Trump does not have time. He also realizes that the American public wants action against the Saudis. They are not interested in the politics.

He will allow JASTA to take its own course and at the same time, can decide to make his opinion more public and frequent. It would be a two-fold blow for the Kingdom.

The ‘mid-term’ dilemma

Donald Trump wants to make it to the second term and this issue could be a game changer for him. The US midterm election is looming and the votes on November 6 will give US voters their first chance to pass judgment on him since he took the White House.

If he raises the rhetoric on how he is keen to address the long-standing plea of the families of the 9/11 victims in the interest of America, something which Presidents have avoided for political reasons in the past, he could sway public opinion quite effectively in his favor.

But whether he will do it not only time will tell.

Saudi Arabia, OPEC leader, is in a difficult situation, but it brought it upon itself. It is still angry and nervous after United Nations voted to extend the probe into human rights violations in the Yemen war.

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