Trump and Saudi Arabia

Rethinking the Relationship with Riyadh

U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman take their seats for lunch in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, March 2017. Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, he has yet to put forward a clear foreign policy framework for U.S.-Saudi relations. Instead, observers must wade through a bog of ad hoc comments. This month, Trump made his view clear that Washington should not offer free protection to Gulf states. He has also said that Gulf states “have nothing but money” and that he intends to make them pay for future “safe zones” in Syria. At the same time, Trump has expressed his desire to improve relations with Gulf states in general in order to tackle Iran’s “destabilizing regional activities.” 

For their part, and notwithstanding Trump’s harsher comments, the Saudis see in the new president an opportunity to enhance their relationship with the United States and repair the rift created by former U.S. President Barack Obama’s championing of the Iran nuclear agreement. They rejoiced, for example, when Trump described Iran as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and questioned the rationale behind the nuclear deal. If Trump undermines the nuclear agreement and continues to maintain and even expand sanctions against Iran, the Saudis will welcome it. Such moves would assure Riyadh that Saudi Arabia remains at the center of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Regardless of the path Washington pursues with Iran, however, Trump should rethink important elements of the so-called special relationship with Saudi Arabia. Specifically, the United States should cease to offer unconditional support for the regime, as such backing legitimizes the regime’s excesses and makes Washington vulnerable to accusations of supporting dictatorship. To be sure, Washington should not sever relations with Riyadh, but there are good reasons for redefining the relationship in ways that protect the United States.


Ever since U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met the founder of the kingdom, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, on board USS Quincy in February 1945, oil, security, and Saudi Arabia’s strategic location have been reason

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