Saudi transition to strengthen US bonds but other factors at play
Washington - The elevation of Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to the position of crown prince and successor to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is a mixed blessing for the United States.
The promotion of MBS, as the new crown prince is sometimes called, is likely to strengthen ties between the kingdom and the Trump administration that envisions a central role for Riyadh in the region. However, US experts said the Saudi prince should not overestimate the extent of US support for Saudi positions in conflicts in the region, whether involving Qatar, Yemen or even Iran.
Richard LeBaron, a former US diplomat who dealt with Middle East matters in the region and in Washington, said Saudi Arabia’s priority was to “dominate” the course of events in the Middle East. “But that can’t be the only thing that defines US policies” in the region, added LeBaron, who now works for the Atlantic Council.
The United States and Saudi Arabia share a long list of joint interests, ranging from securing energy supply corridors in the Middle East to checking Iran’s influence in the region. US President Donald Trump has worked to assure leaders in Riyadh, rattled by what they saw as a dangerously soft line on regional rival Iran taken by former US President Barack Obama, that Washington is on their side.
“They found in President Trump an interlocutor who sought their support, welcomed their investment in the United States’ economy and offered not only continuation of the longstanding security cooperation with the United States but firmly pledged to be a staunch ally in opposing Iranian activities in the region,” said Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia who works for the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Riyadh had felt at odds with Obama, “some even said the kingdom had been ‘betrayed’” by the previous administration, Murphy wrote in e-mailed remarks.
Riyadh’s sympathies for Trump are matched by Washington’s enthusiasm for Crown Prince Mohammed, said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who works for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank. “There’s a great deal of optimism in Washington about MBS and about the move to a new, less sclerotic generation” in Riyadh, Rubin said via e-mail.
Trump has thrown his weight as US president behind the boycott by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members against Qatar in protest of Doha’s alleged support for radical groups. The US president called MBS on the day of his elevation to the position of crown prince to congratulate him.
The harmony between Crown Prince Mohammed and Washington is not perfect. For one, the US State Department's position towards the Qatar crisis remains unclear despite Trump’s public support of Saudi Arabia.The internal differences in the US government highlight a potential problem for MBS: He cannot be sure that Washington will always be as supportive as Trump’s public statements or tweets suggest.
“The Saudis and their friends need to be careful about their assumptions concerning US support,” LeBaron said. “Perhaps there was a misinterpretation that they had a free hand.” He said Washington had been surprised by Riyadh’s move against Qatar. The same was true for the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Houthis.
Even in the case of Iran, the positions of the United States and Saudi Arabia might be less congruent than the new crown prince, a hawk on Iran issues, assumes. Despite the harsh anti-Iranian rhetoric by Trump and other administration officials, the US president is sticking with the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear programme to civilian purposes. In April, the Trump administration told Congress that Iran was complying with the terms of the deal.
The United States did not want “to be drawn into an adventure in Iran,” LeBaron said. In case of an escalation of Saudi-Iranian tensions, Washington was likely to take a very close look at the situation to find out whether it posed a direct threat to US interests or was more a regional rift not requiring US involvement, he added.
Ties between the United States and Crown Prince Mohammed could be tested by challenges for the young prince at home. By taking on more responsibility in Riyadh, he is likely to come under pressure to deliver, Rubin predicts.
The crown prince has launched a number of initiatives and has to come up with results, Rubin wrote in reference to the war in Yemen, which shows no sign of ending, and domestic reform projects in Saudi Arabia.
“The public is no longer going to blame miscalculations in Yemen or with regard to budgetary issues upon anyone else,” Rubin pointed out. “For better or worse, the buck stops with him.”