Nov. 26, 2018, by George Hay and Rob Cox
LONDON/PARIS (Reuters Breakingviews) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s Thanksgiving-week absolution of Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents has undermined any claims to global moral leadership by the U.S. administration. But America’s reputational loss today may benefit the Gulf in 2019.
Though Trump gave MbS a pass on Khashoggi’s killing, the 33-year-old monarch surely realises how close a call he faced and may owe his eventual accession to the U.S. president alone. That gives Trump leverage to undo many of MbS’s recent blunders.
Start with forcing an end to the pointless four-nation blockade of Qatar, where the United States has a military base. Pressuring Saudi to lift this embargo would improve a regional economy hurt by lost Qatari business, ratchet down tensions in the Gulf that have concerned global investors and reunite families.
Next, as MbS’s Godfather-like protector, Trump can push for an end to the Saudi-prosecuted war in Yemen, which Save the Children estimates has led to nearly 85,000 Yemeni children dying of starvation and disease, and which the Brookings Institution reckons costs Riyadh at least $50 billion a year. That’s money Saudi could use to reduce a fiscal deficit the International Monetary Fund projects will hit 4.6 percent this year without deploying its so-called “oil weapon”.
Global oil producers could supply 1.5 million barrels per day more than needed to satisfy demand in 2019, International Energy Agency estimates imply. The natural next step for OPEC is to cut supply, sending crude values above the $80-a-barrel level at which the Saudi budget breaks even. Diverting money from the war can help Riyadh resist the temptation of an OPEC oil cut designed to raise prices – an outcome that would also enrage Trump.
There are other mistakes, such as a diplomatic spat with Canada and a host of human rights abuses, that a chastened MbS could be persuaded to reconsider. It would be a bit much to expect a president singularly focused on “America first” to push on these matters. But Trump holds the whip hand with Saudi on Qatar and Yemen. Only a fool would fail to use it.