Saudi Arabia is putting on a show for Donald Trump on his first overseas trip as U.S. president. Muslim leaders will assemble in Riyadh, and there’ll be an exhibition of classic American cars as well as sports matches and concerts. An online clock counts down the seconds until the big day.
Behind the pageantry are high expectations that won’t be easy to meet.
Among Gulf leaders, enthusiasm for Trump — who looks increasingly embattled at home — is driven by the desire for a like-minded partner in the oil-rich kingdom’s struggle against Iran, its main Middle Eastern rival. That, to Saudi eyes, overrides his record of anti-Islamic rhetoric on the campaign trail, and his attempt to bar some Muslims from entering the U.S. once he took office.
As a candidate, Trump ripped into the accord signed by his predecessor Barack Obama that allowed Iran to keep a scaled-back nuclear program. As president, he’s imposed new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, launched strikes against Iran’s Syrian ally, and generally promised to get tough. That’s why Saudi Arabia’s predominant leader, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, hailed the president as a “true friend of Muslims” and their March meeting as a “historic turning point.”
“The amped-up anti-Iran rhetoric from the Trump administration pleases Saudi leaders, who compare it favorably with the Obama administration’s willingness to do business with Iran,” said Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington and former CIA officer.
‘Not Going Away’
Still, while Iran and Russia have stepped up military engagement to advance their Mideastern interests, Trump got elected promising not to embroil America in more wars. And it’s not clear how much of his Iran rhetoric translates into action.
The nuclear deal, supposedly destined for the scrapheap on day one of a Trump presidency, remains in place. Saudi Arabia’s enemy Bashar al-Assad has been winning the Syrian war and there’s no sign that Trump’s cruise-missile salvo is part of a concerted plan to remove him. The new U.S. president has been marginally more supportive of Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, against rebels it says are backed by Iran, yet after more than two years that conflict remains stalemated.
“I’m not sure that the administration can deliver on what the Saudis want, which is a rollback of Iranian influence,” said Gregory Gause, a professor of international affairs and Saudi specialist at Texas A&M University.
In Syria, “the Saudis are just going to have to wrap their heads around the idea that Assad is not going away,” Gause said. There’s more room for cooperation in Yemen, if the U.S. presses for a political solution, he said. But even that would require “real American commitment and effort,” which may not be forthcoming from a Washington preoccupied with internal affairs.
Also high on the Saudi wish-list is the reversal of legislation that allows the families of America’s Sept. 11 victims to sue other countries for their role in the attacks. In practice, that means the Saudi government is in the firing line: Most of the hijackers that day were citizens of the kingdom. The measure passed Congress last year with broad support, and there’s no current initiative to amend it.
Other Mideastern allies have welcomed Trump while finding that not all his friendly words are accompanied by deeds. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who was in Washington in April, noted that he hadn’t been welcome there under Obama; still, restrictions that stop Egypt from buying U.S. weapons on credit haven’t been lifted. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan got a congratulatory phone call from his U.S. counterpart after winning a disputed referendum, but his objections to America’s alliance with Syrian Kurds were ignored.
Trump is due to give a talk on Islamic extremism during his visit. That’s something of a high-risk event, according to Paul Sullivan, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University.
“I hope he is very careful, nuanced and informed in his wording and body language, given the political earthquakes he could cause by repeating some of his previous rhetoric in such a setting,” Sullivan said.
The clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran is partly underpinned by religion — they’re the Gulf’s leading Sunni and Shiite Muslim powers respectively. Saudi leaders accuse Iran of a push to dominate the Middle East, by fomenting unrest among Shiite communities and sponsoring violent proxies such as Hezbollah. Iran says Saudi money and religious preaching aided the rise of Sunni extremists like al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Before 1979, both countries were close U.S. allies. After that year’s Islamic revolution in Iran, America tilted heavily toward the Saudis. Yet under Obama, Saudi leaders perceived a waning of U.S. interest in the Middle East. They responded by abandoning the kingdom’s traditional preference for soft power, intervening directly in Yemen and indirectly in Syria. The change accelerated as Prince Mohammed’s influence grew.
It’s not only in foreign affairs that the 31-year-old prince is seeking to revolutionize Saudi policy. His ambitious economic plan, to end oil-dependence and reduce the state’s role, will likely be central in talks with Trump.
The program “clearly needs some outside assistance,” Sullivan said. “What Trump can effectively do on this is up to debate.”
Prince Mohammed says he’ll build domestic industries — including in defense, where Saudi Arabia is America’s best customer — and seek more foreign investment. Trump will be looking for money to flow in the opposite direction. He was elected on an “America first” platform and says Saudi Arabia, like other allies, hasn’t paid enough for the U.S. military protection it receives.
The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund may be starting to address that concern. It’s set to announce investments worth $40 billion in U.S. infrastructure, according to people familiar with the plan. The White House has touted joint projects, from energy to technology, worth five times as much — without giving details.. General Electric Co., BlackRock Inc and Monsanto Co. are among the companies due to send executives to Riyadh with Trump for a business summit.
Commercial and security ties have helped the relationship endure for decades and survive plenty of turbulence at the political level.
In the end, Obama probably wasn’t as bad for the Saudis as the kingdom’s leaders make out, just as Trump won’t be as good, according to Gause. What won’t be affected by the change of president, he said, are “what have become the bedrocks of the relationship: intelligence cooperation, military-to-military cooperation, arms sales.”