Washington/Riyadh: Saudi Arabia, seeking to breathe life into its decades-old alliance with the US, claimed “a historic turning point” in bilateral relations after President Donald Trump welcomed deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to the White House.
“Relations had undergone a period of difference of opinion,” a senior adviser to the crown prince said in a statement after Tuesday’s meeting. “However, today’s meeting has put things on the right track, and marked a significant shift in relations, across all political, military, security and economic fields.”
Sunni Arab leaders are embracing Trump with praise the president isn’t finding from other US allies in the world, reflecting an eagerness to reset ties after feeling shunned by President Barack Obama, who crafted the 2015 nuclear deal with their Shiite rival Iran. The Saudi statement said Trump had a “great understanding” of the bilateral relationship. The president and the prince “share the same views on the gravity of the Iranian expansionist moves in the region,” the adviser said.
But while Trump has signalled his plans for a more aggressive policy against the Islamic Republic, political analysts say it’s unlikely he’d seek an open confrontation with Iran or deepen the US role in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, which are serving as proxy battlegrounds between the regional rivals.
“The administration will give the Saudis the rhetoric they want on Iran—more confrontational, emphasize the threat,” said Gregory Gause, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University and a Saudi specialist. “But in terms of specifics, I do not think that the Trump administration wants to get more deeply involved in Iraq, Syria or other places where the Saudis would want help in turning back Iranian influence.”
Saudi Arabia and its closest regional ally, the United Arab Emirates, are bogged down in a two-year war in Yemen against Shiite rebels they say are armed by Iran. Its leaders have openly complained about the rising Iranian influence in Iraq. In Syria, the Sunni rebels they have backed are losing ground against President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group.
At home, the kingdom is grappling with the impact of low oil prices. Economic growth is forecast to slow to 0.9% in 2017, according to a Bloomberg survey, compared with 10% in 2011 when crude prices topped $100 a barrel.
The US and the Al Saud monarchy have been strategic partners since King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Prince Mohammed’s grandfather and the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, met President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in 1945. Oil for security has underpinned the relationship between the countries.
Prince Mohammed, the 31-year-old son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his country’s defence minister, is leading efforts to overhaul the economy and reduce its reliance on oil. The prince’s visit follows a trip he made to Washington in June after unveiling his post-oil blueprint, which includes a plan to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund and selling a stake in Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Aramco. Saudi officials have said they’re considering New York as a potential venue for a global listing.
The prince had lunch with Trump and aides at the White House on Tuesday. That’s a higher-profile meeting than an initially planned photo opportunity, according to Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the institute’s Gulf and Energy Policy Programme.
The new administration sees Saudi Arabia “as a crucial part of the Middle East and an important country to have a positive relationship with—even if there are irritants in the relationship,” said Henderson. “This is at odds with the Obama administration, so they want to make that clear distinction.”
In return, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni-led Gulf Arab states have had “positive anticipation” toward the Trump administration, especially when it comes to containing what they see as Shiite Iran’s malign influence in the region, according to Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. In February, the Trump administration said it was putting the Islamic Republic “on notice” after it carried out a missile test days earlier.
Providing a talking point likely to be welcomed by Trump’s administration, the Saudi statement said Saudi Arabia doesn’t believe that the US president’s restriction on travel from six mostly Sunni nations “is targeting Muslim countries or the religion of Islam” and is aimed at “preventing terrorists” from entering the US.
In a further sign of outreach to the Gulf allies, secretary of state Rex Tillerson met at the state department Tuesday with the foreign minister of the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.
After the frustrations with Obama, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are now responding to Trump’s “more personalized foreign policy,” including his son-in-law Jared Kushner playing a prominent role with Gulf Arab allies, Diwan said during a speech in Washington.
Prince Mohammed’s visit is a sign that Gulf countries are “jumping on early in the boat to try to build those close ties that they think will serve them well,” Diwan said. Bloomberg
Margaret Talev also contributed to this story.