Gulf Leaders Still Love Trump

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan waves hello.

Vincent Thian/AP

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Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan waves hello.

The UAE’s crown prince visits Washington today, pleased with the U.S. president’s embrace of Egypt’s al-Sisi and upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia.

Donald Trump will greet the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Muhamed bin Zayed (colloquially known as MbZ), at the White House today. The UAE has quietly and quickly become one of America’s key allies in the greater Middle East, and the Trump administration appears to be accelerating the speed with which the two countries are growing closer.

The Emiratis, for their part, are as excited as ever by the promise of the Trump administration, even as other regional partners—namely the Israelis—have begun to worry about what a mercurial president who fancies himself a deal-maker might mean for their interests. Relations between the UAE and the Obama administration were also quite warm, with President Obama himself investing a lot of time with MbZ. But the Obama administration’s strategic and moral unease about the Saudi-led Yemen campaign—combined with some differences of opinion on Iraq, Egypt, and Libya—prevented a whole-hearted embrace.

The Trump administration does not seem nearly so concerned about the strategic direction in which the Saudis and Emiratis are headed in Yemen, and seems wholly unconcerned about the humanitarian situation there. The Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Trump administration seem to view Yemen as a righteous conflict against Iranian influence, and as I argued in an earlier piece for The Atlantic, they’re not wholly wrong to do so, even if I fail to see how they’re going to terminate the conflict anytime soon at an acceptable strategic and moral cost.

The Emiratis are very pleased, meanwhile, with the Trump administration’s embrace of Egyptian president Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi—who the Obama administration kept at arm’s length following the coup that brought him to power in 2013. They also seem to think key members of the Trump administration share their negative assessment of the government in Baghdad.

So what’s this visit all about?

Riyadh, mainly. As I have written, one can view the initial Emirati decision to participate in the campaign in Yemen as a strategic investment in the architect of that campaign, the Saudi deputy crown prince Mohamed bin Salman (colloquially, MbS). The Emiratis reason the influential young prince can be the next king of Saudi Arabia and, given his age, can rule for decades. They also see something in MbS and his circle of advisors they haven’t previously seen in Saudi Arabia: dynamism. The Emiratis—much like the youth of Saudi Arabia—have placed a lot of hope in the ability of MbS to carry out the aggressive economic reforms laid out in Saudi Vision 2030. The Emiratis were desperate during the Obama administration for the United States to build closer ties with MbS and embrace his reforms, and they see an opportunity for the Trump administration to do the same.

The Trump administration appears to be abiding. Trump’s four predecessors visited one of America’s neighbors—either Mexico or Canada—in their first trips overseas. Trump, by contrast, will visit Saudi Arabia, following some groundwork laid by key advisors including Jared Kushner, Dina Powell, and Defense Secretary James Mattis. The Emiratis want the president’s visit to go well and for the administration to send a clear message on behalf of the United States that the country stands by its Sunni Gulf partners against Iranian malign activity in the region—a repudiation of the former president’s assertion (famously made in these pages) that the Sunni Gulf states would have to “share” the region with their Iranian neighbors.

Two things—aside from the volatility of the president himself—can trip this visit up. The first is the uncertainty about what, if anything, Trump might ask for from MbZ and other Gulf leaders. I personally, however, don’t think he’ll ask for anything: As much as the president talks a big game about how he’s a deal-maker and gets America’s allies to pay “their fair share,” I think he’s much more likely to pocket arms sales already in the pipeline—such as the recent $2 billion air defense deal with the UAE and a pending mega-deal with Saudi Arabia—as evidence this administration is getting America’s partners to do more.

The second thing that could stick in the craw of the U.S.-UAE relationship is more economic: U.S. airlines have complained for years that Gulf, state-sponsored airlines compete on an uneven playing surface. This seems like the kind of cause an “America First” White House would take up eagerly. The Emiratis also have things they can gripe about here, though: Donald Trump’s ridiculous travel bans have hammered the profits of Gulf airlines—none more than those of Emirates Airlines. So there’s a cost to Trumpism, even for those most excited about its promise.   

There are also, of course, structural issues. Unlike in the UAE, the American executive is not supreme: He is the head of one of three, co-equal branches of government, and on two issues that matter to the UAE—arms sales; and the 2016 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which potentially allows victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue the government of Saudi Arabia—Congress has shown its independence from the White House.

Overall, though, I expect the visit to go smoothly. The core Emirati value proposition—as the only Gulf state with a military capable of operating both independently and alongside U.S. special-operations forces—is too tempting for U.S. strategists (of both parties) who have long dreamed of such a partner in the region. And those differences of opinion that existed during the Obama years—about the Muslim Brotherhood, Yemen, and Iran—largely went away on January 20th of this year.

The biggest risk for the Emiratis and other Gulf states might be overconfidence. Americans aren’t too excited about Donald Trump these days, even if Gulf leaders are. Just as the Gulf states endured the last few years of the Obama administration, hoping for a new administration, this one will not last forever. A wise man would not want to become too associated with Trumpism. And when Trump is gone, the Gulf states will want to have created enduring partnerships that transcend the partisan era in which Americans are living.

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