The Trump Visit to Saudi Arabia: Time for a Course Correction
US President Donald Trump starts his first overseas trip with three key summits in Saudi Arabia beginning May 20, 2017. This includes a summit between the US and the leadership of the Kingdom, a subsequent US-GCC summit as well as the Arab Islamic American summit bringing together 56 Arab and Muslim leaders. Given its wide scope, and the fact that the President chose Saudi Arabia as the first stop in his maiden overseas trip, the visit has generated high expectations.
The GCC states have generally greeted the Trump presidency positively and expressed cautious optimism about the way forward. For one, the election of a new president in the United States brought to an end the presidency of Barack Obama whose term in office was seen in the Gulf region as increasingly problematic as time went on. While initially sharing the widespread hope of a new era in US policy toward the Middle East as exemplified by President Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, the enthusiasm waned due to the president’s perceived cautious and even naive approach to the very real challenges the region faces. In fact, the GCC states see past US policies as being partly responsible for providing a fertile ground for Islamic extremism represented by groups such as the Islamic State, for allowing Iran to greatly expand its influence throughout the Middle East at the expense of the region’s stability, as well as opening the door for a renewed Russian influence in the Middle East that is seen as anything but positive. Second, early indications are that the Trump administration will take a different approach from that of the preceding one when it comes to the key issues of concern to the GCC states. This includes the fight against extremism and terrorism in all its forms, Iran’s expansionist policies in the region, and the hitherto tepid US approach toward engaging strategically with the GCC states on all levels as a means to stem the current cycle of instability and violence. Saudi officials have stressed that the Kingdom and the United States share similar views and see eye-to-eye on the key issues impacting their relationship.
On these fronts, it is anticipated that the three summit meetings to be held in Riyadh will build on the initial meetings that have so far taken place in Washington when, for example, the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud, met with President Trump in March 2017 or when UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayid Al Nahyan was received by the President on May 15. While it is not expected that all problems will be solved or detailed policies agreed upon in all areas, there is an expectation on the GCC side that the statements coming from the new administration will become more concrete and specific. Clearly as far as the Arab Gulf states are concerned, the time for empty rhetoric and false promises is past, as the challenges in the Middle East are simply too real and pressing.
Thus, in order to sustain the initial GCC support for the present US administration, the member states will be looking to the United States to start playing a constructive role in the Middle East with a clear commitment to bring about peace and stability. To move in this direction, the policy approach has to be constructed around four key pillars. First, the GCC and the US share a wide-ranging commitment to combat terrorism in all its forms. To be sure, the GCC has shared and will continue to share the costs, responsibility and burden in this regard. American officials have repeatedly identified the GCC states as one of the best counterterrorism partners the US has.
Second, there is a need to operationalize the containment policy vis-à-vis Iran on all fronts. This includes Iranian regional expansionism, its support for terrorism, its missile program and nuclear policy. On the nuclear agreement with Iran, the GCC will support the US demands for the need to amend the agreement to achieve the basic objective that Iran will never be able to produce a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, it should be clear that Tehran is expected to stick to the letter as well as the spirit of the accord, which up to this time is not the case. Yet on this front, the GCC states also do not want to the US to end the agreement without clearly knowing what the alternative is. Overall, there is an urgent need for Iran to be constructive in the region and stop its support for violent non-state actors such as Hizbollah, the Houthis, and the sectarian militias in Iraq which are tearing apart the state framework in the Middle East.
Third, linked to the above, more emphasis needs to be given to maintaining the integrity of the state structures in the region and finding viable ways to stem the growth of militias and violent non-state actors. In the post-Arab Spring phase, the states in the Middle East have been put under pressure from these actors resulting in increased fragmentation and growing extremism and sectarianism. Unless a new approach to counter this development is found quickly, there is little hope for a turning the page towards peace and security in the region. Fourth, the current Russian expansion into the region has proven to be a negative factor by and large as exemplified by the continuing atrocities in Syria. Yet, Russia’s strength and success has mostly been the result of the weak and indecisive approach taken by the United States up to this stage. The missile strikes on Syria following the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was an initial powerful signal indicating a shift in the US position. The GCC will need to hear more about what the US is proposing in its regional agenda.
On all these issues, the GCC states stand ready to do their share and fulfill their end of the bargain. For this to happen, however, the summit meetings must produce the sense that there will be concrete changes in policy strategies. In the end, a common agenda on bringing back security and stability to the Gulf will also bring more tangible economic and business benefits for both the US and the GCC. This will truly produce a win-win situation. But the full benefits will not accrue until a more constructive US policy approach to the region is implemented.
Dr. Abdulaziz Sager is chairman and founder of the Gulf Research Center, an independent think tank specialising in GCC countries. He is also President of Sager Group Holding in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
This article was first published by the Gulf Research Center on 18 May 2017. It was published with permission.