Actor John Travolta waves as he arrives at APEX Convention Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Faisal al Nasser

Western discourses largely caricature Saudi Arabia as a geopolitical sex-bomb, carousing slyly with Israel after dusk falls. Much of the gossip is of Israeli origin, which has an interest in projecting the narrative that Saudi Arabia is conspiring with US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to attack Iran.

Doomsday scenarios are appearing that 2018 will be the year of Armageddon, finally. If there is a war, it could destroy the world, because trust the Iranians to inflict such losses on the attacker that the world order will never be the same again.

Therefore, the only adult in the room in the White House, Defense Secretary James Mattis, clarified on Friday that he was not stepping up. When poked by Pentagon reporters as to why in that case the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, held a masterly show at a military base in Washington the previous day displaying weapons that Iran is allegedly providing the Houthi guerrillas of Yemen, Mattis had a ready reply.

“It’s the reason Ambassador Haley was there and not one of our generals,” he said. “This is a diplomatically led effort to expose to the world what Iran is up to.” Mattis is a rare general with steely nerves and a good sense of humor too.

On probing whether the “absolutely terrifying” shred of missile Haley displayed didn’t warrant an emboldened or expanded US military response from the US, Mattis flatly said: “Not militarily, no.”

Tehran brushed aside Haley’s performance as theatrics to hide the US role in the war in Yemen. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a tweet compared Haley’s presentation of “alternate facts” to what former US secretary of state Colin Powell once did in the UN Security Council in a February 2003 speech about Saddam Hussein. (Zarif used to be Iran’s ambassador to the UN.) Zarif tweeted caustically: “When I was based at the UN, I saw this [Powell] show and what it begat….”

Interestingly, Zarif tweeted on the same day that Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, ruled in a sermon at the weekly prayers in the holy city of Karbala that the Hashd al-Shaabi, the controversial paramilitary force that was trained, equipped and deployed by the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, and numbering around 140,000 fighters, shall not be disbanded (although ISIS has been defeated) and shall instead be absorbed into Baghdad’s security system so as “to continue to benefit from this important source of energy.”

Mattis would know that Saudi Arabia is increasingly a brooding, introverted, soul-searching ally reflecting over the meaning of life

Simply put, if there is an attack on Iran, count on Iraq to be in the “resistance front.” Mattis knows that war with Iran would be serious business. For argument’s sake, just how does the US launch a war on Iran? From Europe? With the blossoming of ties between Qatar and Iran, the US Central Command faces a new dilemma.

Mattis retired as the head of the Central Command in 2013 and he knows the region. He would know that Saudi Arabia is increasingly a brooding, introverted, soul-searching ally reflecting over the meaning of life – past adventures and consequent defeats on the bleached landscape. Mattis can hear the dull roar of Saudi withdrawal as much as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote this week:

The problem for Trump and Jared Kushner, who heads US policy in this area, is that the Saudis are likely to prove much less of a diplomatic partner than the White House had counted on. If the new crown prince is worried about his domestic political standing, he will be reluctant to stand shoulder to shoulder with an American president seen as too close to … Israel.

This assessment is borne out by an essay penned recently by top Saudi pundit Ali al-Shihabi, director of the Arabia Foundation (a Saudi think-tank based in Washington, DC), where he underscored that Saudi Arabia was preoccupied with reorienting its foreign policies, attending to the disrepair of its own house, and as much as Iran’s surge is a matter of deep concern, “Saudi leaders are instead operating on a longer timeline and do not expect immediate results.”

Indeed, the major events for Saudi Arabia this week were three: one, a US$19 billion stimulus plan with initiatives the government hopes will result in direct and indirect job creation for youth; two, the momentous decision to lift the ban on cinemas; and, three, the arrival in Riyadh of John Travolta to “discuss live” his career and Hollywood.

When Travolta discusses his movie Saturday Night Fever, it will be a poignant moment for Saudi youth. As recently as January Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking religious authority, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh,  warned against the “depravity” of commercial cinemas and opposed their opening. Now the US-based movie chain AMC Entertainment has brought Travolta in. And IMAX is on the verge of opening cinemas in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi youth want jobs, and in a hard day’s night, they don’t want to sleep like a log, either. They’d like to dance away until morning like Travolta to The Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing.”

The 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, gets the point – and prioritizes it. What Jerusalem? What Iran?

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