May 18, 2017

Trump’s Saudi Agenda: Advance Shared Goals and Change the Channel

U.S. President Donald J. Trump shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, March 14. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

U.S. President Donald J. Trump leaves Washington on Friday for his first overseas trip, under a mounting cloud of domestic controversy, beginning with a crucial visit to Saudi Arabia. Despite Trump’s widely-reported aversion to travel and an instinct to stay close to home to deal with perceptions that the administration is spinning out of control, the president may find himself welcoming an important and ambitious international journey that can allow him to build his global profile as a statesman and create a firmer imprint on U.S. Middle East policy.

The trip, which will also include visits to Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, Belgium, and Italy, should afford Trump ample opportunity to advance U.S. interests in the region and continue to develop his own approach to Middle East policy. For Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, the visit comes at a propitious moment in relations with Washington. They, too, believe they have much to build on with Trump, given his stated determination to restore close ties with a range of traditional Middle Eastern partners. Saudi Arabia is so keen on the visit that it has launched a special, and impressive, bilingual website entirely devoted to promoting Trump’s visit to the kingdom under the heading “together we will prevail.”

The trip to Saudi Arabia is essentially structured into three parts, with ever-expanding concentric circles of engagement. The first day, May 20, will be largely spent on what will probably be the most important part of this leg of Trump’s journey: the bilateral U.S.-Saudi relationship. On May 21, the agenda expands to include a summit meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, after which the president will meet with an even broader group of leaders from Arab and Muslim countries. This third meeting will be with the members of the Saudi-led anti-terrorism alliance, the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA), which will be receiving what amounts to an important diplomatic and political endorsement from Washington. Each phase of this unusually action-packed two days has its own purpose within the broader framework of what the United States and Saudi Arabia, and their various regional and international partners, seek to achieve through the meetings.

Trump will be promoting an already clearly defined set of priorities: more Arab support for counterterrorism efforts, confronting Iran, enhanced Gulf commerce with and investment in the U.S. economy including military procurements, encouraging Gulf Arab states’ engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and countering perceptions that Trump or his administration is biased against Muslims or Islam. Gulf Arab countries and their allies will be looking to: secure more military technology and other support from Washington, enhance their own trade with the United States and promote investments in both directions, gain political and diplomatic heft from closer ties, provide Trump every opportunity to dispel negative impressions among Arabs and Muslims, and, above all, ensure maximum cooperation in confronting Iran’s regional agenda. The convergence of interests is so strong that the Saudi portion of Trump’s trip seems virtually assured of significant success. And if the president, a diplomatic novice but an undoubtedly talented performer, is seeking to “change the channel” away from domestic controversies and onto his new role as global statesman, this weekend’s agenda could hardly be better scripted.

Phase One: The Bilateral Relationship with Saudi Arabia

Although Trump will have other important elements of his trip to Saudi Arabia, the bilateral relationship between Washington and Riyadh will almost certainly be the most important and substantial. While many traditional U.S. partners in the Middle East – including other Gulf Arab countries, Egypt, and Israel – grew increasingly frustrated with former President Barack Obama during his second term and have welcomed the arrival of Trump in the White House, few have been more enthusiastic than Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration, too, has been extremely keen about enhancing the relationship, as evidenced by the March White House visit of Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Following that meeting, which reportedly went much longer than originally scheduled, officials on both sides spoke glowingly about a historic “turning point,” and new era of closer cooperation between Washington and Riyadh.

There is a significant confluence of interests on both sides regarding key issues such as defense procurements, investments, and regional security strategy. Because of the strong compatibility of these parallel agendas, broad agreement on major agenda items in the bilateral relationship should be readily achievable. Trump’s priorities include counterterrorism, particularly against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and al-Qaeda, confronting Iran’s aggressive regional agenda, and ensuring that partners pay their “fair share” in defense expenditures and accept a range of burden sharing with Washington. All of these items fit quite well with the Saudi agenda, which is why such a strong, and possibly even exaggerated, sense of mutuality has almost instantly developed between the two governments.

Trump is highly sensitive about other countries failing to spend enough on their own defense needs, and during the presidential campaign he criticized Riyadh repeatedly on that score. Saudi Arabia is actively negotiating a massive defense procurement package from Washington, which should go a long way to addressing such concerns. In 2010, Saudi Arabia agreed to spend $60 billion on U.S. military procurements and services. The package being negotiated includes weapons sales agreed upon, but suspended, during the Obama administration, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system (THAAD), and a range of other weapons, systems, and services, which reportedly could total up to $350 billion over the next 10 years. A major announcement along these lines is reportedly being planned as one highlight of the trip.

Saudi Arabia spent more than 8 percent of its gross domestic product on defense in 2016 – in contrast to just over 3 percent spent by the United States and less than 2 percent spent by most NATO members – much of which goes to U.S. military goods and services. This defense spending has been reduced somewhat from over 12 percent of GDP in 2015, but the current expenditures, at a time of extreme budgetary pressure for Saudi Arabia given the collapse in global oil prices, nonetheless remain among the highest in the world, both in terms of GDP and per capita. In short, Saudi Arabia not only pays its fair share by any reasonable measure, it’s ready to dig deep and spend more, mainly on U.S. weapons and materiel.

At Trump’s March meeting with MbS, the Saudis reportedly suggested an investment package in the United States of up to $200 billion over the next four years, which could provide up to a million direct and an additional million indirect, U.S. jobs. An initial Saudi investment of $40 billion in infrastructure projects in the United States could be announced during the Trump visit. Such investments fit perfectly with Trump’s “America First” agenda and his own, thus far unrealized, promises for a major infrastructure spending program. They also serve the Saudi intention, as outlined in the National Transformation Program and Vision 2030 initiatives, to transform the kingdom’s economy, wean it off of dependence on petroleum revenue and diversify it, including through foreign direct investments. Riyadh will also undoubtedly seek Trump’s support for more U.S. investments in the Saudi economy, particularly in sectors slated for major development including defense industries, tourism, and entertainment. Dozens of senior U.S. business leaders are scheduled to follow Trump to Saudi Arabia in hopes of securing major deals that would benefit both sides and promote these commercial and political goals.

The administration may press Saudi Arabia to do more on confronting radical Islamists, including those viewed as propagating intolerance without openly advocating violence. Riyadh has a clear interest in combating not only violent extremists but also radical ideologues who threaten and attack mainstream Saudi society and its political system. The kingdom recently established the Ideological War Center to combat extremism as well as a new National Security Center. On May 7 Saudi Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef hosted Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Homeland Security Advisor Thomas Bossert to discuss counterterrorism and other security cooperation.

Saudi enthusiasm on counterterrorism will be additionally spurred because of the Trump administration’s apparent willingness to focus on challenging Iran’s regional agenda. The Obama administration seemed focused primarily on Iran’s nuclear program, for which it secured the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Whatever its merits, the agreement does directly address, and at the very least delay a reckoning of, the nuclear issue that is of paramount importance to the United States. From the point of view of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab partners, however, achieving the nuclear agreement came at the expense of countering Iran’s destabilizing regional agenda.

Therefore, the renewed emphasis by the Trump administration on opposing Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the Arab world is extremely welcome in Riyadh and beyond. Indeed, the sense of intensified U.S. support vis-à-vis Iran may have in part motivated some particularly sharp recent comments from MbS regarding Tehran’s ideology and intentions. If they become convinced that the United States is genuinely committed to halting and then reversing this expansion of Iranian influence in the region, Saudi Arabia and its partners could be incentivized to cooperate with Washington on a whole range of other, potentially difficult, issues.

For Saudi Arabia, the most important front in the campaign to confront and rollback Tehran’s influence is in Yemen, where it perceives the Houthi rebels as a dangerous Iranian proxy on its vulnerable southern border. Under Trump, the United States has greatly expanded its engagement in Yemen, particularly with air and drone attacks and the deployment of special forces, particularly in counterterrorism operations in coordination with the United Arab Emirates. Riyadh will certainly press for more U.S. support, some of which may be forthcoming. However, Washington will also push Riyadh toward a political settlement to end the conflict, which the administration has insisted is urgently needed. Riyadh appears to be increasingly looking for a way out of a conflict that seems stalemated and has spawned a humanitarian crisis.

Whatever Washington’s misgivings about the Yemen conflict may be, it nonetheless constitutes a clear instance of proactive military burden sharing by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, taking the lead in their own defense without an overreliance on the United States. For this reason alone, the Trump administration is likely to continue to support the effort as an illustration of the kind of self-reliance it wants to encourage from U.S. partners around the world.

Saudi Arabia will push Trump to develop a clearer and more engaged policy on Syria. The Tomahawk missile strike on a regime airbase following a chemical weapons attack against civilians was warmly welcomed by many U.S. allies in the Middle East, not least Riyadh. But Washington still does not have a clear or coherent Syria policy, and Saudi Arabia will press for one that seeks to rollback Iran’s and Hizballah’s influence and targets ISIL and al-Qaeda. This implies seeking the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, an idea administration officials seemed to have abandoned and then readopted in recent weeks. Riyadh will have to be patient on Syria, and many other fronts, and prepared to hear that Washington may not be willing to go as far as it hopes. Yet the Saudis will strongly make the point that in order to successfully confront ISIL and al-Qaeda in Syria, it will also be necessary to confront Iran, Hizballah, and Assad. And while they are keen to see ISIL dealt a death blow in Syria, as well as Iraq, they have significant reservations about Washington’s plan to use Kurdish militias to lead the campaign to oust it from its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa.

Phase Two: The GCC and the Regional Agenda

On May 21, the aperture widens considerably with a summit meeting between Trump and the governments of the six GCC countries. It will, in effect, be the third annual summit between a U.S. president and GCC leaders, although, for technical diplomatic reasons, it may be publicly billed as the 17th GCC summit with U.S. participation. Nonetheless, both sides seem keen to invigorate the U.S.-GCC working groups that were established at the 2015 Camp David summit and then expanded at the 2016 Riyadh summit.

Washington has had consistent expectations and requests for the GCC, particularly in terms of greater integration, interoperability, and intelligence sharing, however, they are mostly still unrealized. In particular, Washington has long sought to help develop an integrated Gulf regional missile defense system, mainly to protect against possible missile attacks from Iran. The purchase of THAAD by the UAE, and potentially Saudi Arabia, certainly helps, but Washington is likely to continue to press for movement toward greater integration.

The Trump administration is also seeking to re-engage on Israeli-Palestinian issues, and Trump will go from Saudi Arabia to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Part of the administration’s approach is the “outside-in” model that seeks to add a regional component, particularly involving Gulf Arab countries, to the peace process. The hope is that Gulf states – prompted in part by a shared desire to limit Iranian expansion in the Middle East and in part by U.S. encouragement – would provide Israel with the additional inducement of a broader and more open strategic engagement while giving the Palestinians political cover, diplomatic support, and badly needed economic assistance.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have reportedly circulated a “discussion paper” offering to expand telecommunications, commercial, and overflight ties to Israel in exchange for Israel limiting settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories and easing restrictions on the flow of goods into the Gaza Strip. It is unclear whether this implies a formal offer to Israel, whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could politically accept it, where the process could go from there, and what the role of other Gulf or Arab countries might be. Nonetheless, the Trump administration and at least two of the key GCC countries seem to share a vision in which Gulf Arab countries could enhance their own strategic position vis-à-vis Iran by building stronger ties with Israel while simultaneously helping to stabilize, if not resolve, the variable of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Phase Three: The Broader Arab and Islamic Worlds

The third phase of the trip will be a meeting between Trump and approximately 55 leaders of Arab and Muslim countries. Billed as an “Arab-Islamic-American Summit,” it will mainly be with leaders of member states of the IMA that Riyadh created in December 2015. Former Pakistani Chief of Staff General (Ret.) Raheel Sharif was recently appointed its first commander in chief. Trump will deliver a major address to the group, in which he will, at least implicitly, give his blessing to the IMA, which is still primarily an information sharing and coordination group rather than a deployable force for military operations.

Trump will also reportedly press for what the administration is calling an “Arab NATO,” including key Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with other Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan. The group would also, Washington hopes, cooperate and, to some extent, coordinate with Israel in the effort to block additional Iranian expansion. At the very least, Washington would like its traditional Sunni-majority Arab allies to create the framework for a more integrated military alliance to confront Iran, combat terrorism, and meet other urgent security requirements more effectively and without an overreliance on Washington.

While Trump’s meetings with the Saudis may yield meaningful deliverables, his speech to the broader Arab-Islamic group will mainly be a symbolic opportunity for both sides. Trump will seek to dispel any notions lingering from the presidential campaign or subsequently promoted by his travel ban executive orders that he harbors Islamophobic attitudes or that bias against Muslims plays any role in shaping U.S. policies. Fulsome rhetoric about the importance of the broader relationship with Arab and Muslim states, and the explicit or implicit endorsement of the IMA, in the White House view, will help reframe the president in the eyes of many world leaders who may continue to question his intentions.

There is at least one looming potential embarrassment, however. Sudanese President Omar Bashir – who is facing indictment for alleged war crimes by the International Criminal Court, but has enjoyed something of a rapprochement with Riyadh in its efforts to forge the broadest possible coalition to counter Iran – has reportedly been invited to attend the meeting since Khartoum is a member of the IMA. While Trump has downplayed the role of human rights in his administration’s foreign policy, this could be a source of controversy and possible embarrassment. The likelihood, however, is that Riyadh’s invitation to Bashir came with a gentle caveat that he would not be greatly missed if he has prior commitments that ensure his absence from the meeting, especially since Washington has openly opposed his participation.

A Strong Likelihood of Success

Despite the complexity and ambition of the agenda, even in just the first part of Trump’s three-phase international trip, it should provide the president with an admirable opportunity to debut his role as a global statesman and solidify relationships with eager and willing partners in the Middle East, and especially the Gulf region. The voyage will not be without its potential pitfalls, however, especially for a president known for going off-script and off-message at times with diplomatic and political consequences. This is probably more of a danger in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly East Jerusalem, than it is in the Gulf. But no one should be surprised by a presidential statement or action that is problematic and difficult to explain.

Finally, there is the danger of irrational exuberance on all sides. Given their financial difficulties, and despite their eagerness to diversify economically and bolster their defense capabilities, the Gulf countries may not in practice prove to be the cash bonanza that Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and other Western leaders anticipate. Similarly, despite the tough talk against Iran, the Tomahawk missile strike in Syria, and strong pledges of support, Washington simply may not be willing to provide the kind of proactive, dynamic, and even kinetic leadership and engagement that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states may be anticipating and would certainly want.

An “America First” agenda may not herald a new dawn of neo-isolationism, or even prevent the United States from engaging more robustly in the Middle East. But that orientation, combined with a near consensus in the United States opposing involvement in Middle East conflicts, may mean that Washington will be practically more constrained in deploying military forces against extremist groups or Iran or its proxies than some of its allies may wish. And it certainly informs the strong emphasis by Trump on burden sharing by international partners, a broadly shared U.S. sentiment that is only likely to strengthen over time.

The robust overlap in agendas – including combatting violent extremist organizations, confronting Iran, promoting enhanced trade links and investments, strengthening Gulf military preparedness, and greater burden sharing – should make for a successful series of meetings in Saudi Arabia with announced deliverables, especially in the bilateral U.S.-Saudi relationship. Moreover, all the leaders, not least Trump himself, will have a major stake in the summits being perceived to be as successful as possible. Down the road, though, the prudent management of expectations on all sides could be an important part of maintaining, and even enhancing, a set of indispensable relations.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.