Current Affairs / Middle East / News / Politics

Saudi Arabia and the Trump Administration: a marriage of mutual needs

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by Neil Partrick

The Saudis have sent mixed messages in response to nascent Trumpian Middle Eastern policy. Domestic Saudi media likes the tough words toward Iran, whereas externally-based Saudi media has been more sceptical, in effect asking ‘where’s the beef?’

Saudi doublethink has long been a characteristic of the Kingdom’s foreign policy. Vague US talk of Iran being “on notice” is preferable in the Saudis’ backyard than red lines whose enforcement might take the Gulf to war (as opposed to exacerbating Syria’s). Western policy pundits often make great fuss of public Saudi disdain for the perceptible weakness of the Obama Administration’s commitment to the Gulf Arabs, swallowing the Saudi talk of it lowering their deterrence against Iranian misbehaviour. Yet the Saudis back the US-led nuclear deal with Iran and have never wanted the US to undertake military action against Iran that could directly hurt themselves (or the Saudi dependency, Bahrain). The Saudis sometimes talk tough to the US in private, and even publicly over Palestine. However they know that Trump, just like any US leader, has their back, regardless of Iranian ballistic missile tests and arms supplies to Yemeni Houthi fighters. Deep US-Saudi defence relations including large numbers of American military advisors, as well as bilateral intelligence links, will remain strong. They may even expand into the long-mooted ballistic missile defence shield.

Trump’s patchy visa ban hurting some foreign Muslims needs to be seen in this light (and in any case is a practice familiar to Saudi immigration policy). The Saudis have made it clear that they understand that the US will wish to prioritise its national interests. They are also looking forward to seeing how this might play out in terms of a potentially less environmentally restrictive domestic US energy sector that, theoretically at least, allows for more Saudi investment. The indirect threat of financial penalties against Saudi interests in the US under the JASTA legislation doesn’t seem the impediment to fresh Saudi investment it once did.

Obama issued targeted sanctions against specific Iranian interests, Trump has modestly extended that. Obama periodically signed off on military action in Yemen against the Houthi and Al-Qaida, Trump has continued this approach. There may be more US Naval escorting of Gulf and other states’ vessels in and around the Arabian Peninsula. However, short of a major US-led naval mobilisation directly and plausibly threatening Iranian interests in Gulf waters, Iran will probably continue to advance its perceived national interest in the region just like Saudi Arabia does. The difference was, and for the time being at least, is that the US (and the UK) helps the Saudis’ increasingly pointless air war in Yemen. On Syria, the Saudis are realistic and understand that rebel groups cannot be armed more than Syria’s neighbours Turkey and Jordan, and the US, are willing to facilitate. In part this realism reflects a potentially significant Trumpian policy change: that the US intends to work more closely with Russia to prioritise the defeat of ISIS and to keep Syrians inside Syria. The Saudis seem happy with this prospect.

Of course a lot can go wrong with these emergent policy lines. President Trump’s priority (hardly alien to President Obama) of defeating ISIS could mean that the US continues to aid the PKK-aligned Syrian Kurds. This would please Russia and Syria’s President Assad, but the Kurds could come directly into conflict with Turkish and allied Syrian Sunni Arab fighters. The mooted safe zone in northern Syria would then be a nonsense. The Saudis have moved back to the status quo ante with Turkey. They are happy for it to undertake the risky business of helping Sunni Arabs to fight Assad’s forces, as well as ISIS and other troublesome Sunni militants, rather than just sending US-approved arms via circuitous routes as the Saudis do. Talk of the Saudis putting ground troops into the eventual liberation of the de facto ISIS capital, Raqqa, is a bit like the Saudi role in aiding Jordan in its historic turf battles: desultory contributions that sometimes didn’t arrive until the shooting had stopped. An air power delusion has been pursued by the Saudis in Yemen precisely to avoid putting in significant numbers of ground troops. Either way, if Syrian safe zones are to be policed by Jordan in the south and Turkey in the north, the Saudis will stump up the cash and probably little else. Should the US get involved in some form of Russian-approved policing of civilian enclaves – and there is only speculation on this score – this will of course be welcome in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has long sought to manoeuvre the US into the Syrian civil war, despite the Saudis’ apparent dislike of the US-led ground invasion of Iraq. Uniformed US troops in Syria (as opposed to extant US special forces there and in Iraq) would symbolise that Washington (in addition to Moscow) isn’t prepared for Syria to be an Iranian plaything. For Trump, US cooperation with Russia in Syria, assuming US domestic controversy Trump aides’ about relations with Moscow can be withstood, is both practical and a way of trying to side-line Iran, and is obviously therefore seen positively in Riyadh. In practice, the attempted US side-lining of a significant military player in Syria, that also has powerful assets in Iraq, may be impractical or even unwise.

In Iraq, the US was, and will probably remain, a periodically active aerial and covert ground player in the counter-ISIS campaign. US de-confliction with Iran will probably be harder under Trump. Presumably the tactically close Russian-Iranian relationship will help, just as US-Iraqi engagement facilitated US-Iranian cooperation in Iraq. However this assumes that proposed Russia-US cooperation in Syria can work in practice.  For the Saudis these crucial practicalities are the detail of other states’ policies. The Saudis make a symbolic contribution of a few air sorties against US-mandated ISIS targets in Syria. They are not in the lead on any Middle Eastern security question other than Yemen.

For now, the Trumpian approach to Yemen has been continuing to aid a fight the Saudis simplistically present as a regional and international contest with Iran and its allies. However it may be that the new US Administration will in time press the Saudis to see the dangers to Red Sea shipping, including to the US Navy, of an open-ended Saudi-led battle with popular Yemeni forces. The latter include tribal components once manipulated by the Saudis and that now often fight for former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is no more an Iranian ally than an Emirati one (given Abu Dhabi’s residual connections to his son). Egypt wants a resolution in Yemen, the Red Sea blockade of which its navy plays a major role in, and with Assad’s Syria, with whom, like Jordan, it is developing stronger links. Sisi is a guy that Trump can get along with, personally and politically. Egypt also remains the Saudis’ pre-eminent Middle Eastern ally, for all the current tension over the transfer of tiny Red Sea islands and the supply of cheap oil. The US will help the Saudi-Egyptian relationship get over these spats.

Trump plainly also thinks that his son-in-law can mediate a Saudi public engagement with Israel to mirror these littoral neighbours’ private understandings vis-a-vis Iran. Saudi leaders are very used to sending senior family members as emissaries, so they may react better to Jared than the young man’s past Israeli settler affiliation suggests. However Riyadh won’t help Trump to abandon the so-called two state solution in favour of Israeli authority from the Med to the River Jordan, including sovereignty over Jerusalem. Nor will the Saudis, or the much more exposed Jordan, be able to do anything if a third Intifada breaks out as a consequence of US indifference to Israeli one state realities. That said, Saudi embarrassment and tough words on this and other regional issues isn’t likely to rock the Saudi-US relationship from its fundamentals. Mutual US-Saudi security interests will probably mean that the “old alliance”, to borrow Mr Trump’s phrase at his inauguration, will remain firm, for all the regional known unknowns that will affect them both.

Neil Partrick writes extensively on the Gulf and Saudi Arabia for the Economist Group and Oxford Analytica. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the LSE.

This article originally featured on Neil’s own blog here.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation is published by I.B.Tauris and is available to order here.

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