May 20, 2017
What Gulf Arab Countries Are Hoping To Gain (And Avoid) From Trump’s Visit To Saudi Arabia
I write about business and politics in the Middle East and beyond
Saudi Arabia has been pulling out all the stops for President Donald Trump, as it seeks to draw the US closer in to its position on key regional issues such as fighting Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups and the need to tackle the perceived threat from Iran.
King Salman awarded Trump his country’s highest civilian honor, the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud, at a ceremony in Riyadh soon after the American president arrived on May 20. A defence deal worth an estimated $100bn was also due to be formally signed later in the day.
Alongside the bilateral encounters, Saudi Arabia has also used Trump’s visit as the foundation for Arab-US and Gulf-US summits, to which dozens of leaders from Muslim-majority countries have been invited. These may prove challenging events for Trump, who has limited experience of high-level diplomacy or big international summits of this nature.
The Saudis and other Gulf leaders are hoping all this will mark a new chapter in relations with the US. Perhaps more than anything, what they want is a clear statement of US re-engagement in the region, following the Barack Obama presidency when they often felt overlooked. Trump and his associates have been in close contact with the US’ allies in the Middle East over the past few months, but the president has yet to outline any real strategy for the region – this visit provides a potential starting point for that to happen.
“A lot of the Gulf states have felt the US has disengaged a bit from the region and that’s one of the things they want to shore up,” says Michael Vickers, a former US Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence.
There are plenty of issues on the agenda where the Gulf states and the US share a common outlook, from fighting jihadist groups to the threat from Iran. In terms of the Yemen conflict, the Gulf countries are keen to see greater support from the US which Trump may well be willing to offer.
“I think the Saudis will press us to do more [on Yemen],” says Dov Zakheim, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We may well do more. I don’t think we’ll be talking about ground troops in Yemen or anything like that, but if we want to show the Saudis we’re very serious about their security concerns we’re going to have to do something more than we’re already doing.”
However, there are also numerous areas where differences could emerge. Trump’s approach to Syria is not yet clearly formed, but he appears to be far less concerned than the Gulf countries about forcing President Bashar al-Assad out of power.
Palestine is another thorny issue that Trump will have to grapple with. Until now he has delegated the job of trying to forge a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, but Trump will have to engage with it more closely himself, both during his time in Riyadh and when he moves on to Israel on May 22.
Alongside the diplomacy and the defence deals, there is also likely to be some discussion of potential American investment in the Saudi economy which could bolster the Vision 2030 strategy – an expansive attempt to diversify the economy away from its heavily reliance on oil.
Iran is itself an area where Trump would do well to create some distance between US policy and that of his Gulf hosts, although at the moment that appears unlikely to happen.
Trump’s arrival in the Middle East coincided with the Iranian presidential election, in which the moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani won a landslide victory after seeing off a stiff challenge from the hardline Seyyed Ebrahim Raeisi
Rouhani’s win means that further escalation in the dangerous Iranian-Saudi rivalry may be avoided, if those involved take the opportunity to do so. But the Gulf Arab countries are inclined to see the menacing hand of Iran anywhere they look in the region and they will be advising Trump to treat Iran with caution if not outright hostility. On this point more than most, Riyadh will be hoping that the effusive treatment it is giving Trump will ensure that its advice is what Trump listens to.
Dominic Dudley is a freelance journalist with almost two decades’ experience in reporting on business, economic and political stories in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe.
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