US-Saudi Relations Improve as Trump Seals the Gap Left by Obama
The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has greatly improved under President Donald Trump after suffering a setback in 2015 when the Obama administration and other world powers signed the Iran nuclear deal.
“Relations between the two countries have grown especially warm under U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Saudi de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman, who was elevated to crown prince in mid-2017,” reads a December 2018 Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report.
As Secretary of Defense Mark Esper arrived in Riyadh on Oct. 21 amid rising tensions between Tehran and Washington, three experts told The Epoch Times that the U.S.-Saudi relationship under Trump is unique in that it is not only based on regional security needs, but on many other factors, including Saudi Arabia’s vision for societal, economic, and political development.
Deterioration of U.S.-Saudi relations
The United States and Saudi Arabia’s relationship was built on economic ties and security partnerships. A Brookings report mentions that the 1980s and 1990s was a period of “unprecedented cooperation” between the United States and Saudi Arabia, but after that, the relationship began to deteriorate.
“It began to go sour in 2000 when President Bill Clinton failed to get both a Syrian-Israeli peace at the Shepherdstown peace conference and a Palestinian-Israel peace at Camp David,” said the Brookings report by Bruce Riedel.
The relationships further deteriorated during President George W. Bush’s time, and “9/11 made it all worse.” Things declined further during Obama’s time with various disagreements over political equations in the Middle East.
King Salman “snubbed Obama once, waged war in Yemen, executed dozens of accused terrorists, and built a broad 34-nation Islamic military alliance against Iran,” said Riedel.
The CFR report said that during Obama’s time, the two nations differed on core issues.
“Saudi Arabia was dismayed by the lack of U.S. support for ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and that it was not included in initial negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, which were conducted in secret in Oman in 2013. Saudi leadership also chafed at President Obama’s vision that the kingdom ‘share the neighborhood’ with Iran,’” said the CFR.
Dr. Joseph A. Kéchichian, a Senior Fellow at King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, told The Epoch Times in an email that “President Obama loathed Arabs in general and Saudis in particular so it was natural that most thinking Arab leaders would draw the right conclusions, and distance themselves from Obama. Yet, Arabs have not distanced themselves from the United States and were unlikely to [be] doing so anytime soon.”
Strongest Contender to Counter Iran
Experts said that one of the factors that greatly strengthened Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia was the withdrawal on May 8, 2018, of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“Trump has certainly greatly improved the U.S.-Saudi relationship, whether through his tough stance on Iran and the nuclear deal or through resisting congressional and other pressure to penalize the Saudis for their war in Yemen or for the apparent implication of crown prince [bin Salman] in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told The Epoch Times via email.
Another expert, Manjari Singh, who conducted a research project at the University of Jordan and is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, told The Epoch Times that withdrawal from JCPOA brought Saudi Arabia closer to the United States.
“Saudi Arabia has long been raising its voice against Iran for sponsoring and financing terrorism in the region in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq etc. as well as for using the lifting of sanctions since 2015 for its ballistic missile development, which the Kingdom felt was a threat for the entire region,” said Singh. “The withdrawal [from the deal] in that context brought much respite and assured the Kingdom that its voice was being heard.”
Kéchichian said the importance Trump places on the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia is not new.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been important to all American presidents for over 80 years, and the Trump Administration is no exception, even if media outlets perceive inexistent conspiracies between Trump and Riyadh,” he said.
“In reality, the Kingdom perceives Iran as an existential threat, and this American president shares that view,” he added.
In July, Trump bypassed Congress to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. The administration released a statement opposing the joint resolution passed by Congress that disapproved the issuance of an export license for the proposed transfer of defense articles, defense services, and related technical data.
“The transfer of Paveway precision-guided capability to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia directly supports the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States. It does so by improving the security of a friendly country that continues to be an important force for political and economic stability in the Middle East.”
The administration said the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia is important to defend the United States and its allies’ interests from Iran and its proxies in the region.
Singh said that in addition to being of financial benefit to the United States, the arms deal also helped build trust between the two countries and helped to check the growing influence of Iran and its proxies.
Kéchichian, however, said there are no surprises in the arms deal. “Arms sales are always tricky questions, but Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars in Washington over the years. Congress was aware of these sales and approved them.
“Periodically, and under Israeli pressure, Congress blocked certain purchases by the Kingdom, but the sales eventually went through. This is a business relationship, and there are alternative sources that can be tapped, so everyone is aware of what is at stake,” he said.
Bringing Peace and Stability to the Region
The CFR said the Trump administration has embraced the new Saudi leadership of bin Salman, who was appointed Crown Prince by King Salman in June 2017. That and a lot of other measures helped improve relationships.
After his appointment, the Crown Prince launched his Vision 2030 that, according to CFR, “aims to diversify the Saudi economy and boost foreign investment.”
Singh said bin Salman is seen as a visionary young prince who, along with Vision 2030, has also called for a “moderate Islam” that’s different from “pure Islam,” or Wahhabism.
“He framed his country’s Vision 2030 sustainable development agenda under which various reform measures were mentioned—most importantly for women,” she said.
“In May 2018, Saudi women were given a green signal to drive—a major domestic policy change in the country,” said Singh. “The Prince’s confidence showed through even in the face of domestic resistance and criticism. It was obviously because of U.S. endorsements under President Trump.”
She mentioned that Trump “reaffirmed” his promise on Vision 2030 during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, earlier this year.
“Trump said the U.S. under him is ‘prepared to offer advice to help the Vision 2030 succeed.’ In short, Saudi Vision 2030, the brainchild of MBS certainly has President Trump’s support,” said Singh.
Experts note that Trump wanted to disengage from the Middle East. But after the Sept. 16 attacks on Saudi oil facilities, he was unable to do so.
Singh said re-engagement in the region became imperative because the attacks on the “world’s most strategically significant oil facility” reflected poorly on the United States, as a country under its protection was targeted.
“The most advanced air defense systems—the Patriot and AWAC systems installed jointly by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to protect the oil production sites—were attacked. Thus, posing a question mark on the efficacy of the Patriot and AWAC systems!
“Last, the attacks came at a time when the U.S. is looking forward to ‘actively engaging’ in the Indo-Pacific, and thus going back to the Middle East can be exhaustive,” she explained.
Singh said the United States and Saudi Arabia have to come together to upgrade the defense system to “counter the attacks from such drones and missiles as were used on the Saudi facilities.”