UN turns blind eye on Saudi record in Yemen conflict; Saudi prince’s plan to wean kingdom off oil. By Hamish McDonald.

Hillary v Donald: lines blur for conservatives

Supporters of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wave American flags at a primary night event in Brooklyn this week.
Supporters of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wave American flags at a primary night event in Brooklyn this week.

With the biggest state, California, and five others holding primaries on Tuesday, the die seems cast for a Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton election in November, pitting the unspeakable against the unlikeable.

The big remaining question was whether Bernie Sanders bows out of the Democrat race, or keeps hoping for a miracle at the party convention in Philadelphia next month. After all, polls show he would currently beat Trump by a much bigger margin than would Clinton. His immediate reaction to the California defeat was to fight on for social, economic, racial and environmental justice at the convention. “You all know it is more than Bernie,” he told supporters. “It is all of us together.” But he also added: “I am pretty good in arithmetic.”

Even before California, Clinton had a majority of delegates stitched up, according to an Associated Press poll of so-called superdelegates (those not bound to a first vote for a particular candidate). But Clinton would do well to enlist the new crop of younger activists who’ve supported Sanders so far and helped him prevail among under-45 Democrats. Concessions to his agenda, such as a big rise in the federal minimum wage, could be the answer.

Meanwhile, many senior Republicans are accepting Trump as the inevitable. He is not making it any easier. He still hasn’t published his tax returns, and hasn’t convincingly rebutted new allegations that his defunct Trump University committed fraud. Instead he attacked a federal judge hearing a class action case against the educational venture, saying his Mexican ancestry made him biased against Trump (who wants to wall off Mexico). He’s added that Muslim judges might also be too biased to serve.

The contortions of Republican leaders are gymnastic. Paul Ryan, the speaker of the house of representatives, said Trump’s attack on the judge was “the textbook definition of a racist comment” but repeated his support for him. Others declare that Trump doesn’t really mean what he says, or that if elected he would be constrained by wiser heads in the administration and congress.

For some who normally support the Republicans, Trump has disqualified himself with his opposition to free trade, isolationism and suggestion that foreign bond holders get a Trump-bankruptcy style fraction of their money back. The influential Anne Applebaum, for example, wrote in the Financial Times recently that Clinton is the more conservative figure in the race, so it is okay for conservatives to vote for her.

It’s an interesting line that could perhaps be repeated here. The federal budget deficit has blown out under the Coalition, Malcolm Turnbull is propping up naval shipbuilding and the steel industry, Scott Morrison has blocked the Chinese bid for the Kidman cattle empire, and Labor defence spokesman Stephen Conroy is more hawkish than the government about confronting the Chinese in the South China Sea…

But back to the Republicans: it looks like getting nasty at their convention in Cleveland, also next month, and according to The New Yorker, some journalists planning to cover it are taking survival courses from former military types who usually prepare people for war zones.

1 . UN blind eye to buried evidence

Let’s hope the next secretary-general of the United Nations, likely to be female barring a late run by Kevin Rudd, shows more backbone than Ban Ki-moon, who has abjectly caved in to pressure from Saudi Arabia after he issued a report blaming the Saudis for 60 per cent of the child deaths (510) and injuries (667) last year in the civil war in Yemen.

After the Saudis threatened to pull hundreds of millions of dollars from UN programs, Ban removed the country from his new blacklist of countries and armed groups that are violating the safety and rights of children. The UN chief had initially cited the Saudi-led coalition supporting the ousted Yemeni government against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels as causing most of the child casualties. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have been bombing the Houthis, with the United States helping with aerial-refuelling and targeting intelligence.

The UN had said the number of attacks on schools and hospitals had doubled between 2014 and 2015, “linked to the increasing use of air strikes and explosive weapons in populated areas”. Britain is investigating whether the Saudis have been using old stocks of cluster bombs it had supplied before an export ban on the weapons. These bombs scatter bomblets that can lie unexploded until someone, often a curious child, touches them.

The Saudi Air Force, described in the US journal Foreign Policy as “a sort of flying club for princes”, has greatly embarrassed its Western equipment suppliers with a careless approach to civilian casualties.

Now Ban says the UN will remove Saudi Arabia from the list, and conduct a “joint review” of the evidence. The Saudi ambassador at the UN is proclaiming that the removal is “irreversible”. Previous critical reports have also been buried, including one from UNICEF saying 10,000 children under the age of five died last year from preventable illness, and others saying 2.5 million people have been displaced.

2 . Saudi prince insists oil’s not well

At home the Saudis are being shaken out of their complacency by 30-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who this week got government endorsement of a plan to wean the kingdom off dependency on oil revenue by 2030. The endless and controversial Yemen war, plus involvement in Syria, won’t be helping, as the young prince is also the defence minister.

Mohammed’s plan sees the government’s non-oil revenue tripling to $US141 billion by 2020, ending reliance on oil royalties, with 450,000 new jobs created in the private sector. Currently two-thirds of Saudi workers are on the government payroll: they have been told to expect a cap on wages.

The prince wants to finance all this by listing the state oil company Aramco, which he values at $US2 trillion to $US3 trillion, and selling 5 per cent of its shares which would raise $US150 billion on his most optimistic estimate for investments around the world.

It may well be too late. The Saudi economy is already reeling from the decision to keep pumping oil two years ago into an oversupplied market, in order to damage its opposing powers in the Middle East, Iran and Russia. Its government had also upped welfare payments and subsidies to counter Islamic extremism, raised defence spending, and devoted many billions of dollars to supporting Egypt’s military-backed regime. Money is short. An Indian chemicals producer tells me foreign contractors are now being paid in rial-denominated bonds rather than hard cash.

It’s a high-risk gamble for the young prince, who is effectively positioning himself in the line of succession to ailing King Salman while the designated heir, cousin Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, 56, is positioned for the job and a longish reign.

Listing Aramco entails unprecedented transparency for Saudi finances. Gearing up the private sector would empower a new class of private citizens outside the royal households. Oil dollars are the glue that holds the kingdom together. Will the global merchants of death lose their richest customer?


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2016 as "Hillary v Donald: lines blur for conservatives".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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