ISIS has brought Saudi Arabia and the United States closer
Washington - A month into the presidency of Donald Trump, questions remain about the foreign policies the United States will adopt under his leadership. What is clear is that Trump has put defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) at the top of his agenda.
To accomplish that goal, the United States needs to continue its close cooperation with Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration appears to understand that the kingdom is a crucial, perhaps indispensable, ally in the fight against ISIS.
On a February 11th visit to the kingdom, CIA Director Mike Pompeo decorated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz with the George Tenet Medal for distinguished service regarding counterterrorism. This honour was just the latest recognition by a US senior official — although the first under the Trump administration — that Saudi Arabia is a pivotal partner in the US-led global campaign against violent extremists.
It was not an accident that most of the men who conducted the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001, were Saudi citizens. The leader of the al- Qaeda terrorist network at the time, Osama bin Laden, was determined to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the United States as part of his diabolical machinations.
While the attacks strained relations in the immediate aftermath, the two countries have cooperated very closely since then to prevent another such attack in the United States or Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden’s plan was to damage relations between the two countries. Over the years, the reality has been the exact opposite.
The two countries, under successive US administrations, have demonstrated a shared commitment to destroy al-Qaeda and more recently the Islamic State (ISIS). While both countries have taken unilateral measures to safeguard their national security, they have also acted in tandem with a much broader coalition of countries to take the fight to al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have cooperated very closely in intelligence sharing to make sure that known terrorists are not allowed to operate or travel freely. This cooperation has thwarted what could have been devastating terrorist attacks. The most well-known came in 2010 when the Yemen-based branch of al-Qaeda tried to send bomb-laden Fedex and UPS planes to Chicago.
According to American and Saudi sources, Prince Mohammed played a role in informing US authorities about details of the plot and the planes were stopped en route to the United States and the bombs removed.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have been at the forefront of cutting the various funding channels that terrorist groups have used to support their operations. Saudi Arabia has taken part in the US-led military campaign against ISIS strongholds in Syria. One of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s sons took part in an early Saudi air mission in the military campaign and the country’s participation has helped prevent critics of the United States from framing it as a US or Western war against Muslims.
Just as importantly, Saudi Arabia has employed its religious institutions to discredit al-Qaeda and ISIS. Not only have Saudi Arabia’s top religious authorities characterised ISIS’s brand of brutality as violations of the most fundamental tenets of Islam, the Saudi grand mufti described ISIS as the number one enemy of Muslims.
In case there was any doubt that ISIS has launched a war not just against the West but also against the Muslim world, one of its zealots conducted a suicide attack very close to one of Islam’s holiest sites, the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, last Ramadan. It should be very clear that ISIS isn’t at war against just the West; it is at war against all humanity.
US-Saudi relations have in many ways deepened and broadened over the past few decades. Saudi Arabia continues to play a vital role in stabilising international energy markets and Riyadh appreciates the unique role the United States can play in bringing stability to the Middle East and in upholding the international order. Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminence in the Islamic and Arab worlds has been acknowledged by successive US administrations.
In addition, the level of trade between the two countries has increased over the years, reaching an estimated $70 billion last year. There is also a fair amount of cultural exchanges as evidenced by the more than 60,000 Saudis studying in the United States.
Close cooperation on countering the threat posed by terrorist groups is a relatively new dimension of Saudi-US relations. However, the Trump administration has shown an indication that it appreciates the unique role that Saudi Arabia has played in this effort.
Al-Qaeda once tried to drive Saudi Arabia and the United States apart. A shared commitment to destroying a common enemy — ISIS — will ensure that the two countries remain strong partners for the foreseeable future.