By Giorgio Cafiero, ASP Adjunct Fellow
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia’s 31-year old Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, Mohammed bin Salman, became the first Saudi royal to visit President Donald Trump in Washington since his inauguration. According to a White House press release, the 45th American president and the Deputy Crown Prince “reaffirmed their support for a strong, broad, and enduring strategic partnership based on a shared interest and commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East region” and agreed “to deepen commercial ties and promote investment, and to expand cooperation in the energy sector.” The two leaders emphasized the importance of working together to counter Iran’s “destabilizing regional activities while continuing to evaluate and strictly enforce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA]” and confronting the so-called Islamic State.
It is no secret that the Saudis were thrilled to see Barack Obama’s presidency end. Despite the last administration’s military sales to the Kingdom, which at $110 billion far exceeded those of any previous administration, and Washington’s support for the Riyadh-led coalition in Yemen, the Saudis felt betrayed by Obama on numerous fronts. Unsettling for Saudi Arabia was Washington’s calls on Bahrain’s Sunni leaders to make concessions to the archipelago kingdom’s Shi’ite opposition, U.S. support for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s departure from power amid the country’s “Arab Spring” uprising of 2011, Obama’s reluctance to take decisive action against the Syrian regime in the Fall of 2013 following Obama’s “red line” warning to Damascus, and the administration’s diplomatic overtures to the Islamic Republic which manifested in the JCPOA’s watershed passage in 2015.
Although Trump is not even three months into his presidency, the new administration’s foreign policy has made Riyadh cautiously positive about Washington’s shifting approach to Middle Eastern security crises. In Yemen, the U.S. is stepping up its support for the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign against the Tehran-backed Houthi rebel movement as well as Salafist-jihadist actors, chiefly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Trump White House’s rhetoric on Iran has become increasingly aggressive, as most underscored by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s putting Iran “on notice”. Beyond rhetoric, after Trump’s inauguration the U.S. quickly imposed sanctions on Tehran for its ballistic missile testing and the president signed an Executive Order to ban Iranian citizens (and those from six other Muslim-majority countries) from entering the U.S., which, before the judiciary voided it, had received public and private support from some in the GCC.
Unquestionably, the Al Saud rulers view Iran as the primary threat to the Kingdom and its Sunni Arab allies. Riyadh officials will be most pleased if the new administration continues to show strong U.S. support for the GCC and cooperates with the Arab Gulf states to counter Iran’s expanding and consolidating influence in the Middle East.
That said, lingering issues from the Obama/Bush administrations will complicate the prospects for further improvements in Washington-Riyadh relations during the Trump presidency despite a warm start. First, Trump is pushing for increased exploitation of American energy reserves to boost domestic production. As non-OPEC competition is decreasing the cartel’s (and by extension Saudi Arabia’s) leverage in global energy markets, this factor will ensure that oil prices remain quite low at a time when the Kingdom is implementing austerity measures to decrease deficits stemming from economic shortfalls.
Second, with the administration leaving few with any sense of optimism about Washington pressuring Tel Aviv into accepting a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the frustration which Riyadh felt over the previous two U.S. administration’s inability to convince the Israeli leadership to support the Arab Peace Initiative, the Kingdom will remain at odds with U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis the unresolved Palestinian question.
Lastly, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) legislation, which enables American family members of 9-11 victims to sue the Saudi government for its alleged role in the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil, remains a thorn in bilateral relations. It remains unclear how/if Trump will address the controversial law and protect the U.S.-Saudi relationship from its legal and political fallout.
Despite the fact that, aside from these issues, the new administration has taken steps to improve U.S.-Saudi relations, Riyadh is determined to hedge its bets on the international stage. In line with Saudi Arabia’s “Look East” pivot, initiated by King Abdullah in the 2000s, King Salman spent the latter portion of last month and the first half of this month on a three-week Asia tour, visiting five countries (Brunei, China, Indonesia, Japan, and Malaysia) to invest in Riyadh’s alliances with Eastern powers. The uncertainties of Trump’s unpredictable, non-ideological and opportunistic foreign policy and his calls for an “American First” approach to global affairs have left the Saudis increasingly uncomfortable being excessively dependent on Washington for not only security but also support for Saudi Vision 2030, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plan to create a new Saudi Arabia with a diversified knowledge-based economy that is free of its “addiction” to oil. Although the Kingdom will continue relying on America for its security requirements there is a justified sense of cautious optimism that this administration will take Riyadh’s concerns about Tehran more seriously than the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia’s interest in deepening defense cooperation with China will likely increase in the months and years to come.
Undoubtedly, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia share common interests, yet how Washington and Riyadh officials will go about advancing them, particularly with respect to Yemen and the JCPOA, will prove challenging. JASTA will undoubtedly be a nuisance for the relationship. In any event, the two countries have a decades-old alliance to build on which has much potential to improve with Trump in the Oval Office following Obama’s presidency. Most likely, both governments will show strong willingness to make adjustments to enhance bilateral cooperation following Mohammed bin Salman’s historic visit to the White House.
Giorgio Cafiero is an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project and the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.