Trump’s style is at the heart of closer US-Saudi relations
Much has been written about how the US-Saudi relationship soured during Barack Obama’s tenure as US president but has improved under Donald Trump’s.
After all, the thinking goes, Trump made Saudi Arabia the first stop in his first trip overseas as president and both governments view Iran as the main regional threat and are eager to prevent Tehran’s meddling in the Arab world.
Gone is the lingering effect of Obama’s comment, made in an interview in 2015, that Saudi Arabia and Iran must find a way to “share the neighbourhood.”
Moreover, Trump and his team have gone to great lengths to not concern themselves with the internal affairs of countries. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a recent speech at the State Department, said: “If you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals.”
Although Obama did not push democratisation and human rights very hard, he did say publicly that the main challenge facing countries such as Saudi Arabia is “internal.”
On closer look, there is continuity in US-Saudi relations that transcends the different styles of US presidents and shows that this relationship remains a strategic one regardless of who is in charge in Washington and Riyadh.
During the nuclear negotiations in 2014-15 that led to the signing of an accord between the P5+1 countries and Iran, the Obama administration repeatedly tried to assure the Saudis and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members that the United States would continue to support them.
The Obama administration approved billions of dollars of arms sales to the Saudis and maintained its significant naval presence in the Gulf. For all the talk of the “pivot to Asia,” the Obama administration, contrary to widespread belief, did not relinquish its security role in the Gulf region.
In addition, the feared rapprochement (in the eyes of the Saudis) between Washington and Tehran that was supposed to follow the signing of the nuclear deal never materialised. Although most sanctions against Iran were lifted, the United States and Iran remained at loggerheads over regional issues.
The Obama administration also supported Saudi efforts against the Houthi rebels in Yemen by way of intelligence, logistical support and air refuelling. Former Secretary of State John Kerry even took time out of the Iran nuclear negotiations in 2015 to publicly criticise Iran for providing military aid to the Houthis. When Houthi forces fired at a US Navy destroyer off the Yemeni coast in October 2016, the United States responded with cruise missile strikes on three coastal radar sites.
Obama did express increasing concern about the civilian death toll in Yemen, caused in part by Saudi air strikes, and consequently drew down personnel at a Joint Combined Planning Cell in Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration also held up a $300 million sale to the Saudis of precision-guided missiles.
That decision has reportedly been reversed by the Trump administration, which may step up support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen over the short term. However, James Mattis, Trump’s secretary of defence, having assessed the military situation in Yemen, has publicly called for a “political solution” to the Yemeni crisis, something the Obama administration also pursued.
So, if the basic, strategic parameters of the US-Saudi relationship are essentially the same and have not substantively changed between US administrations, why are the Saudis so enthusiastic about the Trump administration?
First is Trump’s style. He eschews nuance in foreign affairs, unlike Obama. If he sees Iran as a problem that needs to be confronted, he is not shy about saying so. Nor is he ambiguous about authoritarian leaders whom he likes, such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Second is the fact that Trump’s priorities are easily understood: To him, US foreign and national security policy is transactional. The world is made up of partners (the Saudis) and adversaries (Iran) and if partners can agree on priorities there should be a way to share the costs.
For example, reports have surfaced that the Saudis might agree to $100 billion in US arms sales during Trump’s visit. Other reports mentioned Saudi plans to invest $30 billion in US infrastructure projects.
If that is the price to keep Trump happy and supportive of the kingdom, so be it. At least in the minds of the Saudi leadership, there would be no concern of a US turn towards Tehran or a lecture about “sharing the neighbourhood.”