After souring relations under Obama, Saudi Arabia sees an opportunity to boost relations with Trump
Trump is eyeing stronger ties to increase Gulf states' participation in the fight against ISIS
It’s reset time for the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials are heralding a new era in relations after watching their stock tumble in Washington under the Obama administration. And the Trump White House is signaling a strengthened partnership as it begins to reshape US involvement in the Middle East.
The Saudis have begun to view Trump as a like-minded partner – one who put Iran “on notice” early in his presidency and has vowed to take a tougher line on the Saudi nemesis than his predecessor. His team also seems less likely to chide the kingdom on human rights issues, a perennial thorn in the US-Saudi relationship.
Trump, meanwhile, is eager to win an increased commitment to fighting ISIS from wealthy Gulf nations, and Saudi Arabia would be the ideal first domino to trigger an increased regional commitment.
But the fresh relationship will be tested by each side’s willingness to deliver on what the other is looking for – and could ultimately end in disappointment for both parties.
The work to reset relations was on full display this week when Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and his delegation met with Trump and his top advisers at the White House Wednesday, just one of a series of high-level meetings between Saudi and US officials in recent days.
The Saudis extolled the meeting as a “historic turning point,” and said it “marked a significant shift in relations.” A senior White House official confirmed the rosy portrait to CNN and called the meeting “very important.”
Pressed Thursday at the Pentagon about whether his country would be willing to put Saudi troops in Syria to fight ISIS, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman replied: “We are willing to do anything to eradicate terrorism, without limits.”
And in a coup for the White House, Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest site, expressed support for the Trump administration’s travel ban, which has targeted several Muslim-majority countries and triggered anger throughout the Muslim world.
“His Excellency expressed his understanding and support for this vital and urgent precaution measure to protect the United States of America from expected terrorist operations,” a senior adviser to the prince said in a statement.
“Prince Mohammed considers his Excellency (Donald Trump) as a true friend of Muslims who will serve the Muslim world in an unimaginable manner, opposite to the negative portrait of his Excellency that some have tried to promote, whether through publishing unjust statements that are taken out of their context or by means of unrealistic media commentaries and analyses about his Excellency.”
It remains to be seen how much substance the kingdom will put behind such statements, however.
“When I see statements like this – which are frankly completely over the top – even the least skeptical journalist should be asking him or herself, is this a reality?” said Simon Henderson, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Gulf and Energy Policy Program.
Henderson argued it was not – at least not yet – and said the statements revealed an “eagerness to kiss goodbye to the Obama administration and deal with the Trump administration.”
“Whether there is the difference which they’re trying to claim is a bit of an open question,” he added.
David Weinberg, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, suggested the adulatory Saudi statements were part of a strategy.
“It’s hard to tell how much of this afterglow is genuine enthusiasm versus flattery,” Weinberg said, pointing to the Saudi reference to a “historic turning point” and exuberant praise of Trump. “Clearly there’s part of a strategy there to go after this president’s personality style.”
The Saudis also pledged billions of dollars in investments in the US, which would help Trump politically with his promise of boosting the US economy and creating new jobs – and even touted the success of a border fence they built on the country’s border with Iraq, an apparent reference to Trump’s plans to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
But it will take more than praise and vague promises to strengthen the US-Saudi relationship, and both sides’ response to pressing concerns the other faces are more likely to drive the relationship.
While the Trump administration has talked tough on Iran, it has done little so far to suggest a radical shift in how the US tackles growing Iranian influence in the region, an issue deeply concerning to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.
Saudi Arabia still fears increased Iranian influence in Yemen, where Riyadh is struggling in its fight against Iranian-backed rebels. The Obama administration blocked an arms sale to Saudi Arabia in December over concerns about the rising civilian death toll in Yemen, and the kingdom is eager to see that arms transfer green-lit.
Still, Ali Shihabi, executive director of the Arabia Foundation who advises the Saudi government, said the Saudi leadership and the Trump administration are in “perfect alignment” on the Iran nuclear deal and said Trump understands Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran is an “existential battle.”
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has been reluctant in to boost its involvement in the anti-ISIS coalition, carrying out a small fraction of airstrikes against the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, Weinberg noted.
Trump has made greater involvement of countries in the region a central tenet of his plan to recalibrate the fight against ISIS, calling on Gulf states to provide funding for the fight and help address the issue of refugees.
But Shihabi said Saudi Arabia views Syria as a “lost cause.”
“Good generals recognize lost battles,” he told CNN.
Older sources of stress in the US-Saudi relationship might also reemerge should Trump revert to his criticism of Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail. During the 2016 race, he knocked the country for insufficiently compensating the US for its military presence in the region and scolded the Clinton Foundation for accepting money from Saudi Arabia despite its human rights record.
While Saudi Arabia is looking to regain “the warmth of the US security blanket,” as Henderson put it, the US may be looking for not just closer ties, but better terms.
Even after the election, Trump continued to paint the US-Saudi relationship as one-sided and vowed to get a better deal.
“We are not being reimbursed for our protection of many of the countries…including Saudi Arabia,” Trump told the New York Times in mid-November.
“Without us, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist for very long,” he warned.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to more accurately characterize Shihabi’s position.
CNN’s Jim Sciutto contributed to this report.