In late April, the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, appointed one of his sons, Prince Khalid bin Salman, as the kingdom’s new ambassador to the United States. The appointment was part of larger reshuffling at the top of the Saudi government. Khalid’s ascent was a sign of the growing power of his older brother, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi minister of defense.
Khalid’s appointment is also largely seen as an attempt by King Salman to boost ties between the Saudi royal family and U.S. President Donald Trump, who himself has delegated significant foreign policy responsibilities to his son-in-law Jared Kushner. After years of strained relations with former President Barack Obama, the Saudis appear to be optimistic about the new president. Trump has a well-established record of hostility toward the kingdom’s main rival, Iran, and in particular toward the Obama administration’s Iran deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), which Saudi Arabia only reluctantly came to terms with.
The optimism is evident in the Saudi state media’s coverage: a March meeting between Trump and the deputy crown prince was hailed as “a historic turning point” in the U.S.–Saudi alliance, and after the first phone call between Trump and the king, in January, the Saudi news agency proclaimed that “the leaders see eye to eye on issues on the agenda.” In a second conversation, in April, King Salman praised Trump for his “brave” decision in April to launch missiles against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
Such positive rhetoric, coupled with Khalid’s appointment, may have already paid off: Trump recently announced that his first overseas trip as president will be to Saudi Arabia, and then to Israel and the Vatican, in what appears to be a symbolic effort to strengthen ties between the world’s three monotheistic religions.
Yet despite Saudi optimism, U.S. policy toward the Middle East remains adrift. No coherent national security doctrine has been crafted, and Washington’s principal objectives in the region are unclear. Although Trump surely wants to differentiate himself from his predecessor, it is doubtful that he will significantly tilt U.S. policy in a pro-Riyadh direction, whether by pushing for the removal of Assad or by confronting Iran with anything more than rhetoric to ensure that Tehran complies with the JCPOA. Despite Saudi optimism, U.S. policy toward the Middle East remains adrift.
And other issues may provide further sources of friction: the U.S–Russian détente, which Trump promised to pursue on the campaign trail, could strengthen Assad and therefore Iran; and Trump’s quest to restart the Israeli–Palestinian peace process may require pressuring Riyadh to bring Ramallah to the negotiating table. In short, the kingdom’s hopes for a full reset are likely to be dashed.
The JCPOA has been a major source of U.S.–Saudi tension over the past few years. Trump railed against it as a presidential candidate, and his running mate Mike Pence promised to "rip up the Iran deal" once they were in office. But at least for now, it appears that Washington has no intention of renegotiating, let alone terminating, the JCPOA. This is in part because defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is Trump’s top regional priority, and the United States’ anti-ISIS efforts still depend on the support of Iraq’s various Shiite militias, many of which are closely linked to Iran. Washington is therefore limited in how much it can push Tehran without endangering its campaign against ISIS.
Instead of abandoning the deal, it now appears that Trump will seek to meticulously enforce it while continuing to oppose Iran’s activities in the broader region—instead of tearing the deal up, Trump has recently pledged to show “great strictness” in enforcing it. Meanwhile, Trump has tightened sanctions on Iran and increased logistics and intelligence assistance to Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen. Iran is thus unlikely to be a point of contention between Washington and Riyadh—despite their earlier protests, the Saudis are not pushing for the JCPOA’s termination, suggesting that so far they view it as being in line with their interests.
Riyadh is also likely to be exuberant about the Trump administration’s position on human rights and political reform. Unlike President Obama, who criticized the kingdom for its human rights record, and during the Arab Spring uprisings supported democratizing Islamist movements against autocratic U.S. allies, Trump appears to have a different set of priorities, which include aligning Saudi Arabia in the fight against ISIS and containing Iran’s quest for regional hegemony. He and his advisors are also more likely to favor ensuring Saudi Arabia’s long-term political stability over pressuring it to reform. Such an approach would be well received in Riyadh.
Trump, like Obama before him, has also consistently emphasized the need for Saudi Arabia to bear its fair share of the burden in fighting terrorism. In April, the president claimed the kingdom “has not treated us fairly because we are losing a tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia.” The Saudis have consistently declared their support for enhanced counterterrorism cooperation against radical Islamic organizations, but have generally failed to move beyond rhetoric. In 2016 for instance, Riyadh announced it was prepared to dispatch troops to Syria to fight ISIS, but unlike the United Arab Emirates it failed to follow through, likely because doing so would have reduced its capabilities of dealing with Yemen, which for the Saudis is the greater threat.
In order to mitigate tensions with Trump over his repeated calls for burden-sharing, Riyadh is presently negotiating the purchase of billions of dollars’ worth of arms from Washington, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, among other high-tech weapons.
But for Riyadh, the real test of Trump’s intentions will be U.S. policy toward Yemen. Since March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition has waged war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The Saudis, despite spending an estimated $200 billion, have failed to achieve any positive results. Instead, the war has created a humanitarian disaster, earned Saudi Arabia international criticism, and pushed Iran closer to the Houthis, thereby exposing Saudi territory to the threat of surface-to-surface missiles, which the rebels are believed to have obtained from Iran.
So far, Trump has not indicated any major changes in Washington’s Yemen policy. The White House still formally supports UN-brokered peace talks and has continued the Obama-era policy of drone strikes against terrorist sanctuaries in the country He has, however, given the Pentagon more freedom to carry out UAV attacks against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen and has apparently increased U.S. assistance to the Arab coalition forces. The administration also supports a long-standing U.S. goal of ensuring freedom of movement in the Bab-el-Mandeb Straits through a robust naval presence in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of East Africa. The United States also wants to see Riyadh by its side in the fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen, and is signaling that it is prepared to remove some of the existing restrictions on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
Yet the Trump administration, which has been careful about not getting dragged into direct confrontation with the Houthis, would likely prefer that Riyadh pull out of Yemen. This would be best achieved through a diplomatic process so that the kingdom can save face.
Finally, there is the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. Trump has repeatedly stated his desire to restart the stalled negotiations, including during his recent joint press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House. But although pressuring the Palestinians without demanding concessions of the Israelis may strain U.S. relations with the Saudis, they are unlikely to derail them. A shared opposition to Iran has brought the Israelis and Saudis closer together, although admittedly in the interests of realpolitik rather than shared values. For some time now, both countries have been covertly cooperating on security and intelligence matters.
MORE OF THE SAME?
Trump’s campaign rhetoric on Iran and some of his initial military operations in Yemen and Syria suggest a new U.S. approach toward the kingdom, which in turn has improved the political climate between the two allies. The Saudis are especially encouraged by Washington’s willingness to approve weapons deals that the Obama administration had barred and to operate military forces with less restraint than in the past.
The scales are tipping slightly in favor of improved relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, but some of the issues discussed above may lead to disputes, resulting in a relationship that is more similar to that of the Obama years than the Saudis had initially hoped. And the change in atmosphere, although not minor, is yet to be translated into a broader strategic framework. Ultimately, it is unclear whether the White House’s approach will change in a way that will fully coincide with Saudi Arabia’s policy goals. Expectations on the Saudi side about a potential reset in U.S. policy will likely turn out to have been exaggerated.