For Riyadh and GCC, Trump era heralds period of uncertainty
The US-Saudi relationship became noticeably cooler during the eight years of the Obama administration and Riyadh is concerned about how its ties with Washington will evolve under a Trump presidency.
The relationship could become downright chilly should US-Russian relations become cosier. Not only could Saudi Arabia find itself without the familiar security safety net it has relied on for 70 years but it may face tougher competition from one of its chief oil rivals if Western sanctions on Moscow are lifted.
The Saudis and the Obama administration have struggled over their differing views on a host of significant issues, including the civil war in Syria and how to deal with Iran. After reaching an international nuclear agreement with Tehran, President Barack Obama raised concerns by counselling Riyadh and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies to “share” the neighbourhood with Iran.
The Saudis’ long-held assumption that Washington would continue to be its military protector should it face a serious external or internal threat eroded during the Obama years. This was particularly so following the Obama administration’s support of the 2011 “Arab spring” protests and its alarming failure in Saudi eyes to intervene in the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Now the Saudis must deal with Donald Trump, who suggested on the campaign trail that the kingdom has not “paid enough” for US military protection. He also threatened a potential US ban on Saudi oil imports. It is unclear whether Trump was just spouting campaign rhetoric or if he will expect Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to pay a version of protection money, which would certainly be an affront to Saudi sensibilities.
A Saudi regime weakened by uncertainty over US military protection and forced to take a back seat in regional politics benefits Moscow as it seeks to gain on its chief rival in oil markets and extend its political influence in the Middle East.
Trump’s nomination of ExxonMobil Chairman Rex Tillerson to be secretary of State signals his determination to develop closer ties with Moscow. With Tillerson at its head, ExxonMobil forged several lucrative joint ventures with Rosneft, Russia’s largest state-owned energy firm, through a 2011 strategic cooperation agreement. Tillerson has been a vocal critic of US and European sanctions on Russia’s energy sector that put a stop to ExxonMobil’s ability to go forward with its joint ventures in Russia.
Much has been made of Tillerson’s personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his having been awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013. Tillerson’s company also has close ties to Saudi Arabia that date back nearly 70 years to when the precursor companies of Exxon and Mobil were partners in Aramco. ExxonMobil operates refinery and petrochemical joint ventures in Saudi Arabia that were established 30 years ago, an indication of strong ties Tillerson has with Gulf Arab states — a point not lost on Israel.
It is not that Saudi Arabia has not looked elsewhere for military protection. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when relations between Washington and Riyadh were particularly frayed, the Saudi leadership sought to strengthen political and commercial ties with China, which was fast becoming one of the largest importers of Saudi oil. Beijing, though, has been loath to commit to supplying naval or air power to the Gulf region and assuming responsibilities for protecting others when it has disputes in its own back yard to sort out.
The Saudis flirted with strengthening political and military ties with Moscow. Then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud met with Putin in Moscow in September 2003 and Putin reciprocated by visiting King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh in February 2007, becoming the first Russian leader to visit the kingdom.
However, a sizeable arms contract being negotiated in early 2008 between the two countries was derailed by Riyadh’s insistence that the deal would only go forward if Moscow ceased military cooperation with Tehran, something Russia was unwilling to consider.
Ultimately, stark ideological differences coupled with mutual mistrust and Moscow’s political heavy-handedness make it unlikely that Riyadh would welcome a Russian umbrella of military protection. As two of the largest oil producers in the world, Saudi Arabia and Russia are highly competitive in key markets.
The prospect of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies no longer under US military protection and having to fend for themselves against external or internal threats seems implausible, particularly when so much of the world’s oil would be at risk. Trump would quickly learn that a disruption to Gulf oil supplies would have a global financial impact that would not spare the United States.
The reality though is that it is impossible to anticipate whether a Trump presidency will indeed closely ally itself with Russia and place demands on Saudi Arabia that Riyadh would find objectionable and refuse. What certainly is disconcerting to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies is that the incoming US president has made erratic and at times contradictory policy pronouncements about US relations with the region. The days of assurance and predictability seem over.