Judging by the press releases, the recent Oval Office meeting between President Trump and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was a strong success. The Saudis described the meeting as a “historic turning point” that “marked a significant shift in relations, across all political, military, security, and economic fields.”
Having spent two years in Saudi Arabia as a consultant and monitoring the reactions throughout the kingdom, the optimism is genuine. That President Trump should wisely start his term by restoring a mutually beneficial relationship with the Saudi government, following its deterioration during the Obama administration, is only logical, given that in the political, security, and economic domains the two countries share fundamental interests.
RESTORATION OF THE PRE-OBAMA STATUS QUO
Saudi Arabia is what Saudi Arabia is. The United States can take one of two approaches towards the Saudi government: it can treat the Saudis as a core ally. Or, it cannot. With either choice, there are predictable outcomes in how the Saudis will react and the extent to which they are willing to help the US.
By restoring the traditional relationship, President Trump is recognizing the obvious. The Kingdom is the most important country in the Arab Middle East. This is partially due to its influence in the global economy as a major oil exporter. It is also due to its religious prestige given its control over the Holy lands of Islam, making the kingdom the de facto leaders of the Sunni Muslim world. Moreover, in a region dominated by civil war and instability, the governing class, in a political sense, is as reliably pro-American as it gets.
Under President Obama, however, in the context of his administration’s push for a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States adopted what was essentially an anti-Saudi position. For example, in a March 2016 interview with The Atlantic magazine, he made comments about Saudi Arabia that were dismissive and openly disdainful. While it is true that the two countries still maintained strong security ties, from the Saudi perspective these comments went far beyond previous disagreements that often emerge between two countries from time to time. Instead, they seemed to call directly into question the future of America’s commitment to a strong bilateral relationship.
By taking a more pragmatic and traditional approach, President Trump’s new stance means the United States is well positioned to receive far more cooperation on the core issues it considers important. For example, the Kingdom is already showing a greater willingness to assist in the creation of safe zones for Syrian refugees and to send special forces to Syria. This is consistent with President Trump’s America First agenda of getting U.S. allies to shoulder more of the burden on key security issues.
On the two fundamental security issues facing the region, jihadist terrorism and containing Iran, the two sides are generally on the same page.
Even Crown Prince Mohammed’s supportive comments about President Trump’s temporary travel ban policy cannot be seen as a surprise. The Saudi readout of the meeting suggested that “the ban did not target Muslims” and went as far as to describe President Trump a “true friend of Muslims who will serve the Muslim world in an unimaginable manner.” The Deputy Crown Prince provided further justification for the Executive Order by stating that Saudi Arabia has intelligence on plots emanating from the countries on the ban since both the Saudis and the US are targets of jihadist groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
While some Americans considered the ban “anti-Muslim” it is logical that the Saudis would not see it that way given that Riyadh follows similar restrictive immigration policies against citizens from countries such as Somalia and Sudan.
Therefore, by that logic, it wouldn’t be considered anti-Muslim by the Saudis, or even noteworthy to see the US do it too.
Most importantly, Saudi Arabia is strongly supportive of President Trump in the context of his position towards Iran. The Obama administration no doubt was genuine in its belief that reaching a deal with Iran would ultimately generate some positive outcome for the region.
The process of attempting to reach a deal with Iran, however, did not contribute to regional stability. In fact, the opposite occurred. It was clear that the United States was more eager to reach a deal than Iran was. This led Tehran to (correctly) believe they could challenge U.S. allies throughout the region with limited consequences, if not impunity.
Equally important, in their push to achieve a deal with Iran, the Obama administration tended to overlook the concerns and insecurities of long-time allies, especially those of Israel and Saudi Arabia. The bottom line is this: if countries like Saudi Arabia don’t feel like the United States is taking into consideration their security concerns, they will “go their own way” regardless of what Washington thinks.
Yemen is a perfect example of the Saudi security concern and cannot be separated from the Saudi perception of U.S. neglect under President Obama. President Trump understands that a way to prevent a country like Saudi Arabia from launching counterproductive wars like the one in Yemen is for them to feel “healthily confident” that the US has its back.
By taking a more realist position towards Iran, the President is making this feeling known. It is impossible to say that if the United States had been more strongly supportive of Saudi, that they would not have initiated their war in Yemen or would have been less aggressive in Syria. It is certainly less likely. What is certain is that a closer relationship during the Trump Administration will make future inclinations for intervention less appealing to the Kingdom. Siding clearly with the Saudis and the Emiratis in regional disputes will also enable the US to have some capital in easing the Saudis out of the war.
Aside from Yemen, another future area where a closer relationship with Saudi Arabia will likely decrease the Saudi temptation to go its own way is in nuclear policy. There are ongoing reports that the Kingdom has its own designs on nuclear weapons as a counter to Iran’s burgeoning program. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East is the last thing the United States wants. The way to ensure it does not happen is making sure the Saudis truly believe that the United States has its back.
ECONOMIC COOPERATION: THE UNDERRATED FACTOR?
Both sides spoke favorably of the potential for greater economic cooperation and this remains an area with the opportunity for true growth between the two countries.
The Saudi government’s chief domestic preoccupation is the Vision 2030 plan, an ambitious series of economic (and hence political) reforms that aim to modernize the economy, decrease unemployment, and achieve a reasonable degree of diversification away from a reliance on oil.
A Saudi Arabia that succeeds in its reform agenda elevates the image of moderation and the prestige of U.S. allies in the region. Therefore, diplomatic support for Saudi 2030 is a critical long-term U.S. interest. Given his background as a businessperson, not a traditional politician, President Trump is well positioned to understand what the Saudis are trying to do with their economic reform agenda.
Of course, Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration will not agree on everything. Washington is unlikely to be as actively anti-Muslim Brotherhood as the Saudis would prefer. Riyadh is also unlikely to receive as much cooperation as it would hope regarding the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, the new U.S. legislation that grants families of the victims of the September 11th attacks the right to sue Saudi Arabia.
Yet, if the United States merely follows a more pragmatic position towards Iran than during the Obama years, the Saudis will consider the Trump administration vastly more favorable to their interests than its predecessor. And in return, the United States will be positioned to receive stronger cooperation and contributions from the Saudis.
President Trump has sent a clear message that his Middle East policy is based on a restoration of alliances with traditional U.S. allies in the region and less of the experimentation of the Bush and Obama years. In other words, it is about dealing with the world the way it is and just trying to make the best of it. So far, it is off to a good start.