By Ali Shihabi
May 18, 2017
When Air Force One touches down in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this week, President Trump can be sure of one thing: His Saudi hosts have firmly pressed the reset button on a relationship that became strained in the latter years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Mr. Obama made four visits to Saudi Arabia, more than any other United States president. He agreed to sell the Saudis more weapons than any other president. He provided American military support for the Saudi intervention in the civil war in Yemen. Yet the Saudis rightly saw him as so anxious to solidify his legacy of the nuclear deal with Iran that he was willing to weaken the United States’ 75-year-old strategic relationship with their country. In fact, it appeared as if Mr. Obama was willing to tacitly accept Iran’s efforts to dominate the Middle East.
Saudi leaders believe they have a better ally in the new American president, whose administration came out early with clear and forceful warnings that it was “putting Iran on notice” after Tehran tested a ballistic missile. This was followed by the approval of the sale of ammunition to Saudi Arabia that Mr. Obama had suspended. The rapprochement culminated in a high-profile visit by the Saudi deputy crown prince to the White House in March. After several years of distancing, the views of Washington and Riyadh seemed very much aligned.
Still, the Saudis will be listening intently this weekend for even more reassurance from Mr. Trump that the Iran page has truly been turned and that the Saudi-American alliance is back on track. Mr. Trump should offer three strong messages for his Saudi hosts.
First, he should state publicly and strongly that he understands that the kingdom is on the front lines of the war against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Sunni extremists are not an existential threat to the United States, but they have repeatedly attacked Saudi Arabia, making no secret that they dream of replacing its government with their “caliphate.” With control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves, any such caliphate would have a terrible, malevolent influence in the Muslim world and beyond.
Along these lines, Mr. Trump should also make it clear that Saudi Arabia is one of the United States’ closest security partners. The United States-Saudi intelligence relationship — described to me by senior American officials in the years since Sept. 11 as being among the strongest in the world — protects American lives, disrupting plots aimed at the United States. American drones flying from Saudi bases have, with Saudi intelligence support, killed many senior terrorists, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the American recruiter for Al Qaeda who was seen by many as the most dangerous cleric to emerge in recent years. Such a public statement from the president would help correct the narrative popular in the United States that the Saudi government supports terrorism.
Second, Mr. Trump should arrive with concrete proposals to help Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies deter Iran, which they see as an expansionist revolutionary power seeking to upend the established order in the Middle East, undermining both security in their countries and American interests.
Mr. Trump must make it clear that the alliance between Iran and the Houthi rebels waging war in Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southern doorstep, will not stand. Not only does this dangerous alliance aim to imperil the security of Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s leading oil producers, but it could also allow Iran to threaten the Bab al Mandeb, the strait between Yemen and Africa that is a maritime choke point vital to the global economy. Mr. Trump should increase the American military’s involvement in the maritime patrols around Yemen to further interdict deadly Iranian supplies to the Houthis.
Third, Mr. Trump should publicly comment on Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts at reform. One of the irritants in the relationship with Mr. Obama was his persistent condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. While it is true that there is much to be done, it is also true that King Salman and his deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, have in a very short time made considerable progress by reining in the religious police and granting more rights to women. In February, they sent a powerful signal by appointing a woman to head Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange, the largest in the Middle East, at a critical time when the country is preparing for a partial privatization of Aramco, the world’s largest oil-producing company; it is expected to be the largest initial public offering in history.
Acknowledgment by the president that the Saudis have made progress is important. Acknowledging how tricky this is — changes must be carefully calibrated so as not to incite backlash from the kingdom’s religious conservatives, who are often at odds with Saudi rulers — would soothe Saudi feelings of being chronically misunderstood.
This visit to Saudi Arabia is a chance for Mr. Trump to reiterate that the United States has a loyal ally in the Middle East, in the heart of the Arab world and at the center of Islam. This is the moment for Mr. Trump to affirm the depth and importance of the strategic relationship and to further strengthen that alliance by embracing the Saudis as full partners in business, in politics and in fighting the rise of violent religious extremists.
Ali Shihabi is the executive director of the Arabia Foundation, a think tank.