Beawiharta / REUTERS King Salman of Saudi Arabia arrives in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 2017.

Why King Salman Went to Asia

Preserving Flexibility in the Trump Era

There are many reasons for Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, a reluctant traveler abroad at the best of times, to be undertaking his ambitious month-long journey to the Asia-Pacific region. China and Japan are critical economic partners that Saudi Arabia needs to fulfill its ambitious Vision 2030 program of economic and social reform. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Maldives are all majority-Sunni states and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is headquartered in Jeddah and led by Saudi Arabia. As such, they are vital to Saudi efforts to construct a united Sunni front to challenge Iran’s ambitions to amass power in the Islamic world.

But there can also be no doubt that the not-too-subtle subtext of the king’s tour is a signal that Saudi Arabia will preserve its flexibility when it comes to its dealings with the United States. Riyadh’s reaction to Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president has been positive. Salman was among the first leaders to congratulate the president-elect last November. His foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, has worked aggressively to establish ties to the new administration and has praised it in comments to the press and in public fora.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaking by phone with King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the White House, January 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaking by phone with King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the White House, January 2017.

And for its part, the Trump administration shows every sign that it reciprocates the Saudi desire to rebuild a relationship that had withered during the unhappy years of the Barack Obama presidency. As part of its efforts to bolster its Iran containment strategy, the Trump administration is increasing its support for the Saudi-led coalition now entering the third year of its military engagement in Yemen. The Trump administration has announced plans to lift some of the restrictions on arms sales to Saudi Arabia imposed by Obama, particularly on precision-guided munitions (but not, apparently, on cluster munitions). Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly has toyed with undertaking more aggressive efforts to interdict at sea Iranian weapons supplies to the rebel Houthis in Yemen. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is conspicuously absent from the list of “dangerous” Muslim-majority nations to be subject to new restrictions on U.S. visas, despite the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi.

Saudi Arabia will be anxious to find ways to meet the Trump administration halfway.

Nevertheless, the Saudis are leery that Trump’s support could quickly turn poisonous. The administration apparently believes that it can draw the Saudis into a plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem on terms dictated by Israel. As the former negotiator Dennis Ross told The New York Times in February, “The logic of ‘outside-in’ is that because the Palestinians are so weak and divided—and because there’s a new, tacit relationship between the Sunni Arabs and Israel—there’s the hope the Arabs would be prepared to do more.” Such a notion exaggerates the convergence of interests between the Israelis and Saudis based on their mutual antipathy toward Iran. The plan’s reported sweeteners—economic and security deals—would not be enough to get Saudi Arabia to throw the Palestinians under the bus. Jubeir was crystal clear immediately following Trump’s comments about a potential one-state solution during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington that Saudi Arabia remains committed to the two-state solution. Thus, Saudi Arabia will not get on board with any proposal that does not offer the Palestinians a secure and sovereign state of their own or, at the very least, full citizenship rights in a unitary state.

The Saudis are also undoubtedly unnerved by Trump’s airy assertions that Saudi Arabia would be willing to serve as America’s ATM, paying for all the administration’s regional initiatives from Syrian safe zones to a military buildup to confront Iran. Saudi Arabia does not possess unlimited wealth. The IMF estimates that in 2017, Saudi GDP will reach approximately $690 billion. This puts it on a par with Ohio, with an estimated state GDP of $653 billion. Against that income, the Saudis are grappling with the economic challenges of finding employment for a young and growing population and diversifying an economy that is overly concentrated in the energy sector. Ironically, by maintaining downward pressure on world oil prices, Trump’s own policies of emphasizing U.S. energy independence threaten to exacerbate Saudi Arabia’s economic challenges and undermine the Saudis’ ability to provide the kind of funding Trump wants.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman, Malaysia's King Muhammad V, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 2017.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman, Malaysia's King Muhammad V, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 2017. 

Undoubtedly, Saudi Arabia will be anxious to find ways to meet the Trump administration halfway. Should the administration succeed in its effort to establish safe zones for Syrian refugees, the Saudis will almost certainly agree to participate in an international coalition to fund it, but they will not be the sole funder (or be a part of a Gulf Cooperation Council–only funding mechanism). Similarly, Saudi Arabia, whose defense expenditures are already the third largest in the world and consume nearly 14 percent of its GDP (compared with 3.3 percent in the United States), will want to support a regional military buildup along the lines that Mattis suggested, but the Saudis are not in a position to foot the bill on their own.

Given the dilemma in which Riyadh finds itself with the Trump administration, Salman is compelled to travel to the Asia-Pacific. Riyadh is eager to turn the page on its relationship with the United States and resume the type of close collaboration that marked the relationship for most of the post–World War II period. But Saudi Arabia must hedge against a potentially hostile Trump when the inevitable occurs and Riyadh must tell him that his expectations for Saudi Arabia are out of line. 

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