President Donald Trump promised to be a diplomatic disrupter, and two months into his young presidency he has delivered: dragging the United Kingdom into his self-perpetuated phone tapping controversy; roiling relations with Germany; insulting the Australian Prime Minister; continuing his bitter feud with Mexico; and even rattling Israeli leaders with his comments on curbing settlements. But one relationship stands out for getting off to a smashing start – with the royal family of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Last week, while most of Washington was transfixed by every twist and turn on health care and the fallout of “phone-tap-gate,” the Trump team rolled out the red carpet for Mohammed bin Salman, or “MbS,” the Saudi deputy crown prince and defense minister who is the most dynamic and ambitious young leader in the Arab world. Carefully choreographed by the White House, the visit left the Saudis glowing, as they described it as the start of a historic new era. While most of America’s democratic allies view Trump with a mix of puzzlement and wariness, the Saudis seem giddy. Trump’s team apparently feels the same way — which likely means both sides are headed for disappointment.
All presidents try to start things right with Saudi Arabia, for the obvious reasons — because of the close military and intelligence cooperation, Riyadh’s regional leadership, and mutual energy interests. During the 2008 presidential transition, outgoing president George W. Bush counseled Barack Obama to tend personally to the partnership, which Obama set out to do by visiting the kingdom on the eve of his 2009 Cairo speech that sought to reset America’s approach to the Muslim world.
That turned out to be one of the few high points in a relationship that became increasingly tense even as it deepened. Obama left Saudi leaders unsettled. They were frustrated by Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Iran, angered by his support for the “Arab Spring,” nervous that his successful push for greater energy independence would reduce their leverage over the U.S., concerned that the “rebalance” to Asia would mean less attention to them, and frustrated that Obama would not become more militarily engaged in Syria. Despite such differences, U.S.-Saudi cooperation evolved as the two sides completed record-setting arms sales (the apex being a nearly $30 billion deal for F-15 fighter jets) and worked to strengthen regional security cooperation, culminating in the leaders summit the Saudis hosted last year – marking Obama’s fourth visit to the Kingdom, the most of any U.S. president.
While the Saudis weren’t sad to see Obama go, at first they were not so sure about Trump, whose campaign rhetoric suggested a tougher line on the Kingdom. But they have worked hard to embrace him, even providing vocal support on such issues as his recent travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries. They believe Trump can be steered their way. And based on last week’s warm atmospherics, the Saudis seem to be succeeding.
In Trump, they now have an American president that is by disposition more familiar than any of his predecessors. As I have argued elsewhere, Trump is congenitally imperial. From the passion for grand architecture and gilded furniture, to the powerful family advisers, blending of public and private business interests, and shared impatience with a free press, Trump and the Saudis have a lot in common. It seems safe to say that whenever Trump visits the Kingdom, he will be wowed, and perhaps even envious – the House of Saud’s palm-lined palaces make the House of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club seem modest.
For last week’s visit, the Saudis did their homework. Understanding that Trump favors visuals, they came prepared with a series of snazzy PowerPoint slides detailing the Iran threat and opportunities for economic investment. The visit was planned and managed by Jared Kushner with an assist by new deputy national security advisor, Dina Powell. In addition to an Oval Office meeting and lunch with Trump and his high command, the prince met with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon in an unusual session that included five senior White House officials, including Kushner, Powell, and Steve Bannon. During my nearly three years in the Pentagon during the Obama administration, I attended every meeting the secretary of defense had with Saudi leaders, and I can’t recall a White House official ever attending.
Behind the scenes, Trump’s White House has engaged intensively with the Saudis and other Gulf leaders, leaving the rest of the bureaucracy in the dark or forcing it to play catch-up. It is easy to see Kushner and MbS — two 30-something family viziers with big ideas, who are alternatively considered to be visionaries or power-hungry upstarts — as enthusiastic partners. The question is whether it will lead to the kind of historic shift both wish to project.
I have my doubts. While the Saudis came ready to charm, they apparently didn’t offer anything new — reprising appeals for greater U.S. military involvement in the region and repackaging past promises for more meaningful cooperation (such as Saudi military engagement in places like Syria, something they’ve offered before but never materialized). Moreover, their promises for more economic investment in the U.S. were welcomed, but were not considered game-changers. In terms of a more active role in promoting peace negotiations with Israelis and Palestinians — an idea that Kushner finds especially enticing — it is unclear if the Saudis are ready to step up, and if so, how.
As for the Trump Administration, beyond the bluster, its approach to the Middle East seems so far to offer more continuity than change. True, it’s unlikely Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will follow his predecessor’s practice of exchanging text messages with his Iranian counterpart. But don’t expect the U.S. to rip up the nuclear deal. Similarly, the Trump administration’s approach to Syria is not a radical departure, but an augmentation of Obama’s light-footprint approach.
So while U.S.-Saudi relations will appear chummier — with two leadership circles so alike — there’s little to suggest the substance will change dramatically. They will continue to work closely on regional security issues and grow closer in defense cooperation, and that’s good. The danger is that such continuity does not meet the ambitious hopes in Washington and Riyadh. The reality is that under Obama, U.S.-Saudi relations were not as bad as people think. And under Trump, they may not be as good as many on both sides expect.