In meetings, Trump pursues ‘new approach’ in the region
Washington - The Trump administration is eager to bolster US alliances with its Arab partners as part of a double-edged policy to cooperate more closely with Sunni Muslim countries to push-back against Iran and promote broader acceptance of Israel by Arab nations.
US President Donald Trump hosted Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz at the White House for talks that centred on strengthening political and military ties. Prince Mohammed is also the Saudi Defence minister and oversees a reform programme called Vision 2030, which is designed to prepare the kingdom for a time when it can no longer rely as heavily on oil wealth.
Prince Mohammed’s talks with Trump set the stage for visits by other Arab leaders in Washington in the coming weeks. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is expected at the White House this month. Visits by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are in the works.
Arab countries were rattled by what they saw as an appeasement policy towards Iran by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and by Obama’s refusal to launch military strikes in Syria despite the use of chemical weapons by Damascus. Analysts said one of the aims of Trump’s meeting with Prince Mohammed was to reassure Arab countries that the United States had changed course.
The president’s meeting with Prince Mohammed was part of a series of contacts “intended to signal a new approach to the region and a much more sympathetic view of the concerns of the Gulf states than the US attitudes that developed during the Obama administration”, said Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen and an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Earlier telephone conversations between Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, were part of this initiative, Feierstein said.
The development comes at a time when the United States appears to be stepping up its military engagement in the Gulf region. Quoting a US Defense Department official, CNN reported that Trump had given military commanders more leeway to launch counterterrorism missions in Yemen. The first military action ordered by Trump after taking office in January was a raid by US elite troops against al- Qaeda in Yemen that resulted in the death of 20 civilians and a US Navy SEAL.
Stronger US support against Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran in Yemen and elsewhere is a key issue in the rapprochement under Trump. His administration sees Tehran as the main threat to stability in the region and has signalled a tougher stance towards Iran.
“The United States shares the Saudi concerns about Iranian occupation of Arab lands and is already getting more involved, for example in Yemen,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics, a consultancy in Washington. “The aim is to reverse Iran’s gains of recent years.”
This support comes with a political price. Describing Trump’s approach as “transactional”, Karasik said Washington would be looking for Saudi concessions regarding the kingdom’s relations with Israel. Feierstein said Trump might be aiming to secure “Gulf recognition of the state of Israel as part of a broader package of political, economic and security agreements”.
Some analysts expressed doubts about Trump’s plan. “The president is likely to find that his vision of US interests, let alone strategy, doesn’t mesh with that of the Arabs on whom he’s relying,” Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Wilson Center, and Richard Sokolsky, a former US State Department official who works for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the Washington Post on March 7th. “In the end, the Arab states will be just as hard to corral as ever into doing what Trump wants.”
Miller and Sokolsky cautioned that the United States “needs to keep its expectations low for working closely with the Sunni Gulf states”.
Washington sees Riyadh as a key player, whose transformation from the world’s biggest oil exporter to a post-oil country will have far-reaching repercussions.
Karasik said the Trump administration was likely to support the Vision 2030 programme because the project carried immense significance for the Middle East and beyond. “A failure of Vision 2030 would have a dramatic impact on the stability of the region and globally,” he said. “Thus, America has a vested interest in seeing the Saudi Vision succeed. Failure is not an option.”
After a more informal visit to the United States last year, Prince Mohammed’s March trip was dedicated to concrete political issues, Karasik added. The fact that the deputy crown prince was visiting the United States at the same time King Salman was on a tour of Asian countries reflects Riyadh’s new foreign policy approach, Karasik said, which is based on the idea that “Saudi Arabia needs to get its message across on a global level”.