Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters Saudi King Salman at a graduation ceremony at King Faisal Air College in Riyadh, January 2017.

Trump Goes to Saudi Arabia

How to Make the Visit a Success

The Saudis are so excited about U.S. President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit that they’ve created a website in four languages with a countdown clock and information about the various bilateral, pan-Arab, and pan-Islamic meetings that Trump will hold in the Kingdom.

Over the past few years, it has become commonplace for the political and military leadership in the Gulf States from Muscat to Riyadh to rail against U.S. policy under the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. In the view of many of these leaders, it led to the meteoric rise of Iran, their arch-nemesis, and exacerbated regional turmoil. Since Trump’s election, the shift in attitudes across the region has been notable.

Gulf leaders deeply distrusted President Obama (the feeling was probably mutual), and they were pleased by the notion that pretty much any president after Obama would bring welcome change. That it was Trump, not Hillary Clinton, who won the election was icing on the cake, since the chances of starting anew, or as one Bahraini official put it privately, to “go back to basics,” would be much better with a Republican administration. 

Whether the jubilation in the Gulf lasts will depend on what Trump accomplishes during his trip, which begins at the end of this week. Gulf officials appreciate Trump’s and his team’s aggressive rhetoric about Iran, but words won’t be enough to reassure them on vital matters of national security. What Trump offers in terms of concrete plans to counter Iran in conjunction with his regional partners will determine the visit’s success or failure and the duration of the honeymoon. One could make the case that the visit itself should be considered a success, but Gulf leaders are not looking for photo ops and handshakes. They mean serious business, and are eager to work on a joint agenda to combat shared threats and pursue strategic opportunities. A credible upgrade in security ties would keep the United States out of sectarian conflict and regional power struggles in the Middle East.

According to The Washington Post, Trump is ready to offer two things: the largest ever arms-sales deals in history and a proposal for an Arab NATO. However, in my judgment, neither will help counter Iran anytime soon or put the U.S.-Gulf partnership on a more solid footing. The arms sales will continue to buy the Arab Gulf states influence in Washington and bolster deterrence against a conventional Iranian attack. But supersonic jets, missile defenses, and other heavy defense materiel will be useless for countering Iran’s asymmetric warfare, which has subverted several pro-US governments and caused mayhem across the region.

I have long championed an Arab NATO, but it will take years to create a unified politico-military force. All the while, Iran will further gobble up territory and expand its reach in the Middle East. To be sure, an Arab NATO has great strategic merit—it is the most cost-effective and sustainable response to the Iranian regional challenge—but it is not an immediate solution to the complex, urgent, and growing Iranian threat.

Only a commitment to meaningfully enhance U.S.-Arab security relationships and build consultative mechanisms at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels will make a difference. Give credit to Obama for starting this process by launching two U.S.-GCC summits at Camp David and in Riyadh in previous years. But neither meeting laid out serious mechanisms for implementation, primarily because neither side trusted the other. 

Having monitored the progress made on the key deliverables coming out of both U.S.-GCC summits, it was obvious even to Obama officials that there was a ton of room for improvement. Trump should finish what Obama started and instruct his team to work with the United States’ Gulf partners on implementing the Camp David and Riyadh agendas.

Such a move by Trump would herald a new chapter in U.S. political and thus security relationships with the Gulf, which could lead to a stronger appetite on the part of some of our partners to do things we have asked them to do but have always been resisted, including more domestic reforms, better counterterrorism cooperation, help on Syrian refugee settlement, and a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A credible upgrade in security ties would keep the United States out of sectarian conflict and regional power struggles in the Middle East, and would help its partners address their own security concerns and become more reliable and responsible regional players. This process would also boost U.S. credibility and its reputation around the world as a serious ally that is sensitive to its partners’ security concerns.

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