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Donald Trump’s Arabian Nights

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump join King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, and the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, to participate in the inaugural opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. (Official White House Photo / Shealah Craighead)

Donald Trump left Saudi Arabia on Monday still basking in the glow of the reception the House of Saud had put on for him. It’s easy to see why: from the moment he arrived in Riyadh, Trump was ushered past billboards plastered with his own tweets to the Ritz-Carlton, where an image of his face was projected onto the facade. Over the course of two days, the Saudis astutely sized up Trump and gave him a welcome tailor-made to appeal to his ego and self-perception.

The outcome was an unbridled success for the Gulf monarchy, not least because Trump himself came away congratulating himself on a diplomatic success. Considering the future president was taking to Twitter to castigate both Saudi Arabia the US-Saudi partnership less than three years ago, $110 billion in arms sales and other trade deals represent a stunning about-face for both sides.

Even more importantly for his hosts, Trump fully embraced the shared mistrust of Riyadh’s arch-rival Iran. In his Sunday speech, he accused Tehran (not without reason) of sponsoring sectarian violence across the region. Engaged in hybrid struggles against Iranian proxies in both Syria and Yemen, the Saudis were thrilled to have the US president so forcefully evince their own view of the region’s geopolitics. For all the fears prompted among the Saudi elites by Trump’s campaign rhetoric, his administration has turned out to be a welcome departure from Obama’s attempts to mend ties with Iran.

The glowing show of friendship evidently served its purpose, but the glamor also served to mask a shift in Saudi Arabia’s strategic priorities. Despite the symbolism of the “glowing orb” and the ceremony where Saudi Arabia’s King Salman awarded Trump his very own medal of honor, both Salman and his potential successors taken the advice offered by Lebanese professor Fawaz A. Gerges. Speaking a day before Trump arrived in Riyadh, Gerges said he hoped “that the Arab leaders, with all modesty, will not put most of their eggs in this basket. The basket of Donald Trump is full of holes.”

In fairness to Donald’s basket full of holes, that decision was taken well before he took office. With President Obama seen in both capitals as a begrudging ally, Riyadh began hedging its bets on American support years ago. The Kingdom has been looking to diversify both its native defense industries and its economic partnerships to wean itself off decades of dependence on the US. That kind of diplomatic diversification might have been unthinkable a decade ago, when ties between the House of Saud and the Bush family were so close whole books were written about them, but times have changed on both sides.

Like the rest of the world, the Saudis see much of their own future in East Asia. In March, Salman took on a major tour of Asia and visited Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan before wrapping up his trip in China. These weren’t just courtesy visits, either. Japan is a major buyer of Saudi oil, and Softbank is a joint partner in the Saudi public investment fund that just hit the threshold of $93 billion in capital. In China, Xi Jinping joined Salman to sign $65 billion worth of trade deals covering energy, culture, education, and technology, but most critically defense.

At the same time, the Saudis have been busy shoring up other existing alliances. In April, it was Theresa May’s turn to come to Riyadh. Like the Saudis, May herself is in the market for new friends and economic openings. The British prime minister arrived on a key leg of her overseas visit after triggering Article 50, pushing the country’s largest Middle Eastern trading partner to assist her in expanding UK-Saudi relations while Brexit throws the UK’s role in the global economy into doubt.

Setting the stage for Trump a few weeks later, May offered her hosts exactly what they were looking for. She spoke highly of the government’s Vision 2030 plan to pursue wholesale privatization, and insisted London would be the perfect place to list the mother of all privatizations: the initial public offering of Saudi Aramco. The City of London is going to great lengths to keep itself in the running for the Aramco listing. Within the framework of the wider Gulf Cooperation Council, Britain’s closest Arab allies have met her halfway. Perhaps even further than halfway, since the Gulf states are putting together their own signature-ready agreement for May’s government to sign.

Ironically, this willingness to branch out is exactly what Trump advocated on the campaign trail. Trump the candidate constantly put all US partners, including NATO and the Gulf states, on notice that Washington would no longer be in the business of writing blank checks for friends without expecting anything in return. Of course, Trump’s brand of “fair” international relationships mostly consists of other countries paying what amounts to protection money for the privilege of hosting the US military or benefiting from security guarantees. The new president has never really troubled himself with the nuances of why these strategic partnerships are valuable or important to US foreign policy. Regardless, Saudi Arabi’s ability to call on multiple partners would represent a sea change in the US-Saudi partnership.

Saudi Arabia has benefited enormously from American assistance and protection, but that crutch impedes sound reasoning on the Saudi side and complicates life for US presidents who want to revisit the orthodoxy of antagonizing Iran. The Saudis might be thankful to see an American president share their desire to weaken a threat, but the shift in the sands is unmistakable. Arms for oil is no longer enough to justify the dynamics of the relationship. Besides, with someone as erratic as Donald Trump in the White House, the Saudis are right to wonder how long even that will last.

 

Author

Mark Varga
Mark Varga

Mark Varga is a Hungarian-American European Affairs Consultant residing in Budapest.

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