Saudi Arabia is a conservative status quo power that has long depended on the United States to play a stabilizing role in the Middle East. After 2011 that role became uncertain. The American occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq had proven unpopular and unsustainable. Economic pressures at home, public dissatisfaction with mounting casualties, a stalled Arab Israeli Peace Process, growing energy independence, and a “pivot towards Asia” all reduced American appetite for involvement in the Middle East.
In 2010, when Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal strongly advised the Obama Administration against a complete American withdrawal from Iraq, there were no civil wars in Syria or Iraq. Iran was increasingly contained by international sanctions. Russian presence in the Middle East was minimal and no one had heard of ISIS. By 2016, Syria and Iraq were in turmoil, Iranian proxies hostile to Saudi interests were active in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Russia had re-engaged militarily with Syria, Egypt, and Iran to an extent not seen since the Cold War. ISIS had occupied Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, as well as much of Eastern Syria. One must go back to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century to find an Arab World in such chaos, and from Riyadh’s perspective, much of this turmoil was the result Washington’s retreat.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s own relationship with the United State had become strained during the Obama Administration. Washington’s reluctance to become involved in Syria, its criticism of the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen and most importantly a perceived willingness to place Tehran on equal footing with Riyadh, all contributed to a sense of estrangement. No Saudi King had come to power facing greater regional instability than King Salman and repairing relations with Washington became one of his highest priorities.
In May 2017, Donald Trump made his first trip abroad as president. His purpose in the Middle East was to re-confirm alliances with America’s traditional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia and distance himself from President Obama’s rapprochement with Iran. Saudi Arabia was his first stop and during his two days in Riyadh, the president held three summits: one with King Salman, one with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and one with Muslim heads of State assembled by the Saudis.
To reinvigorate their relationship with Washington, the Saudis deployed all three of their traditional foreign policy tools: building alliances, spending oil revenues and mobilizing Islam. Using important policy alignments, massive purchasing power and their stature among Islamic nations, the Saudis effectively ended their estrangement from their most important ally.
Policy alignment was the easy part. As the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubair had said during the Munich Security Conference in February 2017,
“Trump believes in destroying ISIS. So do we. He believes in containing Iran. So do we. He believes in working with traditional allies. So do we. We look forward to working with this administration very very closely”
During their summit, the President and King took the unprecedented step of codifying Saudi American relations by signing a Joint Strategic Vision. Confronting global terrorism was at the top of their agenda with the opening of a new Global Center for Confronting Extremist Ideology intended to monitor and disrupt extremist usage of social media Restricting terrorist funding was a second area of agreement which saw the creation of a new Terrorist Finance Targeting Center; co-chaired by Saudi Arabia and the United States and joined by every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Trump specifically praised Saudi Arabia’s listing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and its recent efforts to place economic sanctions on senior Hezbollah leaders.
Confronting Iran and its proxies was a third area of alignment where President Trump made his views clear, “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds arms and trains terrorist, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.” The Saudis could not have agreed more and here again Trump specifically praised Saudi actions against the Iranian-backed Al Houthis in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s oil production policy is built on the strategic economic goal of maximizing long term oil revenues. However, it often uses those revenues to pursue immediate foreign policy objectives. It did so during the summit where economic cooperation was the second major theme of President Trump’s visit.
Saudi Arabia agreed to make large investments in American industry and jobs. Over 100 billion dollars worth of contracts were signed with major US industrial firms such as General Electric, Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical, and Boeing. Saudi Aramco signed another 50 billion dollars worth of contracts with American oil field service firms. Defense firms like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics initiated another 100 billion dollars worth of contracts including precision guided munitions the Obama Administration had been reluctant to supply. The Saudi Public Investment Fund committed 20 billion dollars to an infrastructure development fund being created by the American private equity firm Blackstone. All told the value of the contracts and agreements signed exceeded the GDP of Austria.
Not since King Faisal developed Islam as a foreign policy tool to confront Arab Nationalism has a Saudi King used religion as effectively as King Salman. The king recruited a dozen Sunni Muslim states to support Saudi efforts in Yemen, created the Islamic Counter Terrorism Coalition with some forty Muslim members and in 2016 hosted Northern Thunder, a major military excesses intended to improve coordination among the new coalition members and which became the largest gathering of Arab armies since Operation Desert Storm in 1990.
Riyadh’s willingness to place itself at the center of this moderate Sunni alliance system reflects a self-confidence based on Arabia’s historic role in the creation of Islam. It derives further strength from Saudi Arabia’s financial resources, geographic location and current custodianship of Islam’s holy places. King Salman is not called a caliph, but his title “Servant of the Two Holy Mosques,” was used by the Ottoman caliphs and reflects the Kingdom’s central importance in the modern Islamic world. It gives King Salman credibility as the leader of a moderate Sunni coalition that a purely secular leader would lack and it allowed him to gather more than 50 Muslim heads of State to meet President Trump.
President Obama chose to address the Islamic World from Cairo. His physical audience was almost entirely Egyptian. Within eight years the government of Egypt had been overthrown twice and the country had slipped into heavy dependence on financial assistance from Saudi Arabia, the IMF and the United States. During that same period, Saudi Arabia remained stable, saw the peaceful transfer of power from one king to another and initiated significant economic reforms. When President Trump chose to address the Islamic World he did so from Riyadh with an audience of fifty-six Muslim heads of state gathered to hear him.
This speech marked something of a watershed in the Arab World where leadership has shifted away from the banks of the Nile. It has been exactly fifty years since Egypt’s President Nasser led the Arabs into a disastrous war with Israel and during those years much has changed. The ideas Nasser used so effectively to ignite the Arab World have burnt out. Pan Arabism, Arab Socialism and to a considerable extent secular liberalism have been discredited and replaced by nation states, market economics, and faith based ideologies. Nasser’s call for non-alignment with the likes of Yugoslavia’s Tito or India’s Nehru, his playing one super power off against the other in the Cold War, or his call to use Arab oil as a political weapon now seem like ancient history. Instead, it was a conservative, religiously based monarchy, firmly aligned with the West that assembled Arab and Muslim leaders to meet with a president of the United States who agreed to work with their new Islamic military coalition focussed not against Israel, but against primarily Islamic terrorism.
From the Saudi perspective, the visit of President Trump was a spectacular success. It realigned the United States with its traditional ally and made clear their joint opposition to the two greatest threats to Saudi security, Sunni jihadist terrorism, and Shi’a Iranian expansionism. The summit confirmed a great deal of business and investment that should create jobs not only in the United States but also in Saudi Arabia where the King has embarked on an ambitious economic reform plan to diversify the economy away from oil. And finally, the summit clearly demonstrated the Saudi’s leadership role in the Muslim World. All told, a very productive two days for King Salman.