Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia shines spotlight on multifaceted relations between two countries
Prominent political philosophers have long argued that, in politics, the winner takes all. They theorised that international relations is a zero-sum game in which a party can benefit or advance its interests only at the expense of another. However, there have been just as many critics who posit there is ample evidence that relations between countries can be mutually beneficial.
Contemporary examples are many but recently the international spotlight was on relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Ties that can be traced back to the 1930s were thrust onto the international stage as US President Donald Trump visited the kingdom, participated in three summits and signed a strategic vision declaration aimed at deepening economic development, trade and diplomacy between the two countries.
Trump’s decision to make Saudi Arabia the first country he visited on his first trip overseas spoke volumes about the importance he accords Riyadh. The two leaderships appear to have reached a proverbial meeting of the minds in the sense that they both believe that the keys to stability to the Middle East are clear and assertive policies and close cooperation with allies in the region and beyond are needed.
The Arab Islamic American Summit brought together leaders of more than 50 countries across the Arab and Islamic worlds as they sought to adopt a united front to confront some of the political, economic and social challenges facing people in the Islamic and Arab worlds, especially violent extremism.
Trump has consistently maintained that defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) is his top foreign policy priority. In that sense, it made perfect sense that he would choose Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the location of Islam’s two holiest sites to reach out to the Islamic and Arab worlds by delivering a message.
The message was direct and clear: What the international community is confronting is not a war between religions or civilisations but an assault from a small minority of criminals that pays lip service to religion but whose heinous acts are the furthest things from God. Trump’s remarks had a tone of urgency but they still stressed the importance of international cooperation on all levels and what people and countries have in common, not their differences.
While much of Trump’s speech stressed the importance of international cooperation, he did single out Iran for its decades-long legacy of violating international norms of good neighbourliness. The president condemned Iran’s support for militant groups, terrorist operations and its sectarian policies. Nevertheless, he left the door open for Iran to end its international isolation by eschewing those policies and acting like a responsible member of the international community.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, in remarks opening the summit, stressed the importance of Trump’s visit and the international community’s collective effort to rid the world of ISIS and other terrorist groups.
Trump attended the inauguration of the Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh, one of several Saudi institutions dedicated to countering the threat from violent extremists by discrediting their narrative, exposing their brutality and lies and disrupting their recruitment efforts.
The billions of dollars’ worth of military sales that were signed during the visit will assist Saudi Arabia to bolster its defences along its borders, shores and skies. The agreements could create thousands of jobs both in the United States and Saudi Arabia. There was also a meeting of US and Saudi CEOs aimed at fostering trade and investment. There were deals related to energy, health care and education.
However, there is an intangible aspect to the visit that should not be overlooked.
There are now more than 60,000 Saudi students studying in the United States. Some estimate that as many as 20,000 Americans live and work in Saudi Arabia, in addition to thousands of others who visit every year. This people-to-people aspect of the relationship has been one of the keys to building the trust and comfort level between Americans and Saudis, helping sustain this relationship over many decades. Trump, first lady Melania Trump, his daughter Ivanka and US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross spoke fondly of the warm reception they received and how much they appreciated the famous Arabian hospitality.
Establishing good personal relations between political leaderships can indeed be a tremendous asset in managing international relations. The Saudi and American leaderships are aware of that and have cultivated good and close relations at very senior levels. All of this bodes very well for the future of US-Saudi relations.