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Trump comes to Riyadh as Saudi Arabia bankrupts itself

US President Trump arrives in Saudi Arabia at a time when Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the country’s de facto ruler – has launched it on a runaway spending programme which is bound to end in national bankruptcy.

Alexander Mercouris

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US President Donald Trump’s choice of Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip has provoked some criticism.

It is not difficult to understand why.

Whilst the US claims to be the leader of the “free world” the embarrassing reality is that its most important Middle East ally is a repressive autocratic Wahhabist monarchy.  Whilst Donald Trump says the destruction of Jihadi terrorism is his priority, Saudi Arabia – as everyone knows – is the country that bankrolls most of this terrorism.

Beyond that there is the fact that many Americans have not forgotten or forgiven the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers – as well as Osama bin Laden, the presumed organiser and inspirer of the 9/11 attacks – were Saudis.

The fact however remains that Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of the whole of the US’s strategic position in the Middle East, whilst Saudi Arabia’s oil exports – and the fact that it sells them for US dollars – serve a key role in underpinning US dominance of the world economy.

Whilst this remains the case the US has no realistic option but to maintain good relations with the Saudis.  In that respect Trump’s courtship of the Saudis makes far more sense that Obama’s ill concealed disdain for them, and given the damage Obama did to this crucial relationship Trump’s priority on repairing it – and thus his visit to Saudi Arabia – makes complete sense.

What all the talk of Trump’s visit obscures however is that even as the US seeks to renew its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom has embarked on an out-of-control spending spree which can only result in its eventually bankrupting itself.

To understand the scale of what is happening, just consider the outline of the projects that are supposed to be under discussion during Trump’s visit.  The Financial Times provides a good summary

Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, signed more than $50bn worth of deals on Saturday, around $22bn of which were new memorandums of understanding, including:

Investing $7bn with Rowan over 10 years to own and operate drilling rigs, creating 2,800 jobs in Saudi Arabia; extending a joint venture with Nabors for oil well services, seeing $9bn of investment over 10 years, creating up to 5,000 jobs in the kingdom; a new joint venture with National Oilwell Varco in Saudi Arabia to manufacture driving rigs and equipment, seeing $6bn of investment over 10 years.

Aramco also said it would boost operations at its US refinery unit Motiva, with a planned $12bn investment with a likely additional $18bn by 2023. The deal aims to create 12,000 jobs by 2023.

Six firms — including Honeywell, McDermott and Weatherford — signed MOUs to expand Aramco’s use of locally produced goods and services, bringing $19bn of investment to the kingdom.

Aramco also signed a deal with GE to deliver $4bn worth of savings via digitisation of the oil firm’s operations. This was part of a GE package of valued at $15bn.

When deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Washington earlier this year, the White House estimated that Saudi investment pledges could rise to around $200bn.

In the defence sector, Lockheed Martin signed a $6bn deal to assemble 150 Blackhawk helicopters in the kingdom, supporting 450 jobs.

Raytheon and General Dynamics also signed agreements to support the localisation of defence contracts. The deals support Prince Mohammed’s plans for the world’s third-largest spender on arms to create a domestic industry led by the newly formed company Saudi Arabia Military Industries. The kingdom wants to source half of defence spending locally by 2030 from 2 per cent now.

Saudi Arabia’s $200bn Public Investment Fund, which plans to boost its assets under management to $2tn after the planned initial public offering of Aramco, will also announce its SoftBank vision fund deal, as well as launching another partnership, according to its managing director, Yasir Al Rumayyan. The SoftBank vision fund, the largest private equity fund ever created, is expected to close at more than $90bn, with half of the investment coming from PIF. Around 50 per cent of the fund is expected to be invested in the US, bankers say.

Saudi’s sovereign Public Investment Fund pledged $20bn for a $40bn Blackstone US infrastructure fund, with $20bn to be raised from other parties. Blackstone said it expects, with debt financing, to invest $100bn in infrastructure projects, mainly in the US. “This potential investment reflects our positive views around the ambitious infrastructure initiatives being undertaken in the US as announced by President Trump,” said Yasir Al Rumayyan, managing director of PIF.

Dow Chemical, whose chief executive Andrew Liveris co-chaired the Saudi-US CEO Forum on Saturday, agreed to invest more than $100m for a polymers manufacturing plant, while studying a proposed investment in silicones production.

This comes on top of a $300 billion (!) deal to buy arms from the US over a period of 10 years, of which $110 billion (!) is to be spent up front.

These gargantuan arms deals oil rich Arab states regularly make are not primarily intended to strengthen their defence capacity.  The quantities of weapons these oil rich Arab states buy is by many orders of magnitude greater than they can ever use.  Rather these deals are bribes, intended to buy the favour of the country from whom these oil rich Arab states buy these arms, whilst simultaneously buying the favour of useful politicians and businessmen by recycling some of the money to them through kickbacks and commissions.

The US – and Britain and France – have long since become accustomed to this practice, and have no illusions about it.

In the 1970s, when Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya did the same thing with the USSR – buying vast quantities of arms from the USSR which it was never going to use – the Russians did not understand it, and were baffled by it, especially as they saw most of the sophisticated weapons they were supplying vanish into Libyan storehouses (many of them were still there, rusted and decaying, in 2011 when Gaddafi fell).  Today the Russians have also come to understand it.

Needless to say what Gaddafi and the Libyans did with the Soviets in the 1970s is completely dwarfed by what the Saudis regularly do, and even that is dwarfed by the Homerically vast arms deal the Saudis have struck with the US just now.

All of this spending is being driven by the grandiose and out-of-control ambitions of Saudi Arabia’s actual ruler, the 31 year old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who seems to believe that instead of working hard to develop its own industrial and technology base Saudi Arabia can simply buy itself one wholesale.

Moreover at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched Saudi Arabia onto this gigantic domestic spending spree, he is doubling down on Saudi Arabia’s hugely over-ambitious and massively costly foreign policy, waging (and losing) war in the Yemen, intervening in Syria, bankrolling Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt, and confronting Iran, a country far more powerful than Saudi Arabia, with resources Saudi Arabia cannot match.

This is exactly the opposite route to the one Saudi Arabia should be following.

If Prince Mohammed bin Salman were familiar with his history (he obviously isn’t) he would know that Saudi Arabia and the other oil rich Arab states have been trying to buy their way to industrialisation since at least the 1960s.  Since this is never done by developing the economy organically and indigenously the attempt has always failed, as the plants and factories imported from Europe and North America need supplies and technicians from abroad to keep them going, and are ill-adapted to local needs.

Repeating this approach, which in the past has always failed, but doing so on a gigantically greater scale, is simply going to make the failure far greater, littering Saudi Arabia with flashy new factories that consume more in resources than the value of the goods they produce.

By contrast, if Prince Mohammed bin Salman were ever to put aside his sectarian prejudices (something which is probably impossible for him) he could do worse than look at Iran, which since the fall of the Shah in 1979, and despite many setbacks and Western sanctions (or possibly because of them) has managed through careful industrial training and management, and by relying on its own resources, to do what Saudi Arabia and the other oil rich Arab states have consistently failed to do, which is build up a significant industrial and technology base of its own.

As for where the funding for this megalomaniac spending programme will come from, the Financial Times article makes it all too obvious: from privatising Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state owned oil company, the historic cash cow of the Saudi economy, which as a result is going to be lost forever.

All this combined with a bizarre fancy that Saudi Arabia’s financial resources can be increased by using the sale of Aramco to leverage up the paper value of the assets managed by its Public Investment Fund (ie. its sovereign wealth fund) from $200 billion to $2 trillion.

Needless to say this is not going to be anywhere near enough, and it is only a matter of time before runaway spending at this rate causes Saudi Arabia to run out of money.

That all sense of reality is being lost is shown by the extraordinary extravagance of the reception Prince Mohammed bin Salman is laying on for President Trump.  A leaked report shows that the Saudis are planning to spend an astonishing $68 million on his visit.

In reality what Saudi Arabia needs to do is not engage in a gigantic programme of over-spending which can only make the country’s economic situation worse, but on the contrary cut back radically on its existing spending, so that it can finally start to live within its means.

That means thinking of how to end the vast system of subsidies and privileges that are distorting and stifling the economy, and which are robbing it of vitality because they are unearned since they are paid for from oil revenues and are not paid for by taxes.

It means working towards ending the peg between the Saudi riyal and the US dollar, which is exaggerating the problems of the country’s budget at a time of low oil prices, and which is increasing its non-oil trade deficit by stifling the competitiveness of the non-oil part of the country’s economy.

It also means reining back on the country’s ludicrously over-ambitious and inherently destabilising foreign policy, which has achieved nothing save to spread terrorism throughout the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia itself, whilst locking Saudi Arabia into an arms race with Iran, which because of Iran’s vastly superior resources Saudi Arabia can never win.

As for the vast sums Saudi Arabia spends on arms – which it cannot use and often doesn’t intend to use – Saudi Arabia would be far better advised spending them instead on educating its people so as to prepare them for a genuine role in the country’s government.

As well as improving the national education system – which by all accounts is in an extremely poor condition, blighted by bigotry and prejudice – that means providing scholarships to young Saudis – men and women – from poorer families to study in universities abroad.

Objectively all this is possible, and it is not too late to do it.  If it were done then in 10 to 20 years time Saudi Arabia would be transformed vastly for the better.

In reality none of this is going to happen, and most likely it would not happen whoever was Saudi Arabia’s ruler.  Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s peculiar genius is to accelerate the now inevitable collapse, so that it will all happen far more quickly than it otherwise would have done, and at supersonic speed.

Patrick Cockburn, that most insightful of commentators on Middle East affairs, has compared the cost and extravagance of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reception of President Trump to the similarly empty and inflated pomp of the Shah of Iran’s Persepolis Party of 1971.

That event together with the Shah’s runaway spending on a manic and unsustainable industrialisation programme eerily similar to the one now planned by Prince Mohammed bin Salman led eventually to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Iranian monarchy.  If the same thing happens in Saudi Arabia the results will be far more bloody.

In the meantime all sorts of people are making hay whilst the good times last.  In the words of the Financial Times

……dozens of chief executives from Saudi Arabia and the US were convening at a forum where they discussed Saudi financial flows into America, and how the US could help diversify the kingdom’s oil-reliant economy. “The government is taking a back seat and putting the private sector as the locomotive to drive the economy,” said Khalid al-Falih, the Saudi energy minister. “There will be risks, but we will work with you to mitigate it.”….

At the close of the Saturday morning forum, about 70 senior Saudi executives and US chief executives boarded buses outside the Four Seasons hotel, bound for lunch with King Salman and Mr Trump at the royal court.

The elite business delegation is set to hold postprandial talks with prince Mohammed, architect of the kingdom’s reform plans. Around 30 US executives were approved to attend the lunch, including names such as Larry Fink of BlackRock, Michael Corbat of Citigroup, Roy Harvey of Alcoa, Adena Friedman of Nasdaq and financial adviser Michael Klein.

Amid tight security, royal guards took the executives’ phones, before they boarded the coaches.

As the horizon darkens, all that is left is to wish these gentlemen bon appetit.

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BREXIT chaos, as May’s cabinet crumbles (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 18.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris take a quick look at the various scenarios now facing a crumbling May government, as the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is forcing cabinet members to resign in rapid succession. The weekend ahead is fraught with uncertainty for the UK and its position within, or outside, the European Union.

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If Theresa May’s ill-fated Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is eventually rejected this could trigger a vote of no confidence, snap elections or even a new referendum…

Here are six possible scenarios facing Theresa May and the UK (via The Guardian)

1 Parliament blocks Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement and political declarations

May faces an enormous task to win parliamentary approval, given that Labour, the SNP, the DUP and 51 Tories have said they will not vote for it.

If the remaining 27 EU member states sign off the draft agreement on 25 November, the government will have to win over MPs at a crucial vote in early December.

If May loses the vote, she has 21 days to put forward a new plan. If she wins, she is safe for now.

2 May withdraws the current draft agreement

The prime minister could decide that she will not get the draft agreement through parliament and could seek to renegotiate with the EU.

This would anger Tory backbenchers and Brussels and would be seen as a humiliation for her government. It might spark a leadership contest too.

3 Extend article 50

May could ask the European council to extend article 50, giving her more time to come up with a deal that could be passed by parliament – at present, the UK will leave on 29 March 2019.

Such a request would not necessarily be granted. Some EU governments are under pressure from populist parties to get the UK out of the EU as soon as possible.

4 Conservative MPs trigger a vote of no confidence in the prime minister

If Conservative MPs believe May is no longer fit for office, they could trigger a no-confidence vote.

Members of the European Research Group claim that Graham Brady, the chair of the powerful 1922 Committee, will receive the necessary 48 letters this week.

A vote could be held as soon as early next week. All Tory MPs would be asked to vote for or against their leader. If May wins, she cannot be challenged for at least 12 months. If she loses, there would be a leadership contest to decide who will become prime minister.

5 General election – three possible routes

If May fails to get support for the current deal, she could call a snap general election.

She would table a parliamentary vote for a general election that would have to be passed by two thirds of MPs. She would then set an election date, which could be by the end of January.

This is an unlikely option. May’s political credibility was severely damaged when she called a snap election in 2017, leading to the loss of the Conservative party’s majority.

Alternatively, a general election could be called if a simple majority of MPs vote that they have no confidence in the government. Seven Tory MPs, or all of the DUP MPs, would have to turn against the government for it to lose the vote, triggering a two-week cooling-off period. May would remain in office while MPs negotiate a new government.

Another route to a general election would be for the government to repeal or amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Act which creates a five-year period between general elections. A new act would have to be passed through both the Commons and the Lords – an unlikely scenario.

6 Second referendum

May could decide it is impossible to find a possible draft deal that will be approved by parliament and go for a people’s vote.

The meaningful vote could be amended to allow MPs to vote on whether the country holds a second referendum. It is unclear whether enough MPs would back a second referendum and May has ruled it out.

 

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Brexit Withdrawal Agreement may lead to Theresa May’s downfall (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 151.

Alex Christoforou

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The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has been published and as many predicted, including Nigel Farage, the document is leading to the collapse of Theresa May’s government.

During an interview with iTV’s Piers Morgan, remain’s Alistair Campell and leave’s Nigel Farage, were calling May’s Brexit deal a complete disaster.

Via iTV

Alastair Campbell: “This doesn’t do remotely what was offered…what is the point”

“Parliament is at an impasse”

“We have to go back to the people” …”remain has to be on the ballot paper”

Nigel Farage:

“This is the worst deal in history. We are giving away in excess of 40B pounds in return for precisely nothing. Trapped still inside the European Union’s rulebook.

“Nothing has been achieved.”

“In any negotiation in life…the other side need to know that you are serious about walking away.”

“What monsieur Barnier knew from day one, is that at no point did Theresa May intend to walk away.”

“Fundamental matter of trust to the electors of our country and those who govern us.”

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, and why the deal is a full on victory for the European Union and a document of subjugation for the United Kingdom.

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Coming in at 585 pages, the draft agreement will be closely scrutinized over the coming days but here are some of the highlights as outlined by Zerohedge

  • UK and EU to use the best endeavours to supersede Ireland protocol by 2020
  • UK can request extension of the transition period any time before July 1st, 2020
  • EU, UK See Level-Playing Field Measures in Future Relationship
  • Transition period may be extended once up to date yet to be specified in the text
  • EU and UK shall establish single customs territory and Northern Ireland is in same customs territory as Great Britain

The future relationship document is less than seven pages long. It says the U.K. and EU are seeking a free-trade area with cooperation on customs and rules: “Comprehensive arrangements creating a free trade area combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition.”

The wording might raise concerns among Brexiters who don’t want regulatory cooperation and the measures on fair competition could amount to shackling the U.K. to EU rules.

As Bloomberg’s Emma Ross-Thomas writes, “There’s a clear sense in the documents that we’re heading for a customs union in all but name. Firstly via the Irish backstop, and then via the future relationship.”

Separately, a government summary of the draft agreement suggests role for parliament in deciding whether to extend the transition or to move in to the backstop.

But perhaps most importantly, regarding the controversial issue of the Irish border, the future relationship document says both sides aim to replace the so-called backstop – the thorniest issue in the negotiations – with a “subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing.”

On this topic, recall that the U.K.’s fear was of being locked into the backstop arrangement indefinitely in the absence of a broader trade deal. The draft agreement includes a review process to try to give reassurance that the backstop would never be needed. Basically, the U.K. could choose to seek an extension to the transition period – where rules stay the same as they are currently – or opt to trigger the backstop conditions. In fact, as Bloomberg notes, the word “backstop,” which has been a sticking point over the Irish border for weeks, is mentioned only once in the text.

As Bloomberg further adds, the withdrawal agreement makes clear that the U.K. will remain in a single customs area with the EU until there’s a solution reached on the Irish border. It’s what Brexiteers hate, because it makes it more difficult for the U.K. to sign its own free-trade deals, which they regard as a key prize of Brexit.

Predictably, EU Commission President Juncker said decisive progress has been made in negotiations.

Meanwhile, as analysts comb over the documents, Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group, has already written to Conservative lawmakers urging them to vote against the deal. He says:

  • May is handing over money for “little or nothing in return”
  • The agreement treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K.
  • It will “lock” the U.K. into a customs union with the EU
  • It breaks the Tory election manifesto of 2017

The full document…

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4 resignations and counting: May’s government ‘falling apart before our eyes’ over Brexit deal

The beginning of the end for Theresa May’s government.

The Duran

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Via RT


Four high profile resignations have followed on the heels of Theresa May’s announcement that her cabinet has settled on a Brexit deal, with Labour claiming that the Conservative government is at risk of completely dissolving.

Shailesh Vara, the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office was the first top official to resign after the prime minister announced that her cabinet had reached a draft EU withdrawal agreement.

An hour after his announcement, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab – the man charged with negotiating and finalizing the deal – said he was stepping down, stating that the Brexit deal in its current form suffers from deep flaws. Esther McVey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, submitted her letter of resignation shortly afterwards. More resignations have followed.

Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, Jon Trickett, predicted that this is the beginning of the end for May’s government.

The government is falling apart before our eyes as for a second time the Brexit secretary has refused to back the prime minister’s Brexit plan. This so-called deal has unraveled before our eyes

Shailesh Vara: UK to be stuck in ‘a half-way house with no time limit’

Kicking off Thursday’s string of resignations, Vara didn’t mince words when describing his reservations about the cabinet-stamped Brexit deal.

Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement leaves the UK in a “halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally become a sovereign nation,” his letter of resignation states. Vara went on to warn that the draft agreement leaves a number of critical issues undecided, predicting that it “will take years to conclude” a trade deal with the bloc.

“We will be locked in a customs arrangement indefinitely, bound by rules determined by the EU over which we have no say,” he added.

Dominic Raab: Deal can’t be ‘reconciled’ with promises made to public

Announcing his resignation on Thursday morning, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: “I cannot in good conscience support the terms proposed for our deal with the EU.”

Raab claimed that the deal in its current form gives the EU veto power over the UK’s ability to annul the deal.

No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime.

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said that Raab’s resignation as Brexit secretary is “devastating” for May.

“It sounds like he has been ignored,” he told the BBC.

Raab’s departure will undoubtedly encourage other Brexit supporters to question the deal, political commentators have observed.

Esther McVey: Deal ‘does not honor’ Brexit referendum

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey didn’t hold back when issuing her own letter of resignation. According to McVey, the deal “does not honour” the result of the Brexit referendum, in which a majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union.

Suella Braverman: ‘Unable to sincerely support’ deal

Suella Braverman, a junior minister in Britain’s Brexit ministry, issued her resignation on Thursday, saying that she couldn’t stomach the deal.

“I now find myself unable to sincerely support the deal agreed yesterday by cabinet,” she said in a letter posted on Twitter.

Suella Braverman, MP Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the EU © Global Look Press / Joel Goodman
Braverman said that the deal is not what the British people voted for, and threatened to tear the country apart.

“It prevents an unequivocal exit from a customs union with the EU,” she said.

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