The Cable

Tillerson, Mattis Seek to Mend Fences With Saudi Arabia

Goodbye, Iran deal tensions. Hello, counterterror cooperation and investment.

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The Trump administration is quickly rekindling Washington’s once-ailing relationship with Saudi Arabia, and it’s on full display this week.

On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Riyadh as the White House continues to mull greater support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, which has been star-crossed with plenty of civilian casualties.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke at a U.S.-Saudi business summit in Washington, touting bilateral business ties a way for the two countries’ relations “to be taken to new heights.”

Speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Tillerson told a crowd of U.S. and Saudi CEO’s and senior Saudi officials, including Minister of Commerce and Investment Majid Al-Qasabi, the State Department’s officers in Saudi Arabia “are at your disposal” to boost trade and investment. The Kingdom is working to revamp its overwhelming economic dependence on oil with an ambitious program called “Saudi Vision 2030,” which would require plenty of foreign capital.

“The Trump administration has made it clear that one of our policies priorities is to get better deals for the United States,” Tillerson said. “By choosing U.S. companies…the Kingdom will reap the benefits of what our private sector is best known for,” he said in his speech/infomercial, calling the U.S. private sector “partners you can count on to deliver commitments.”

The joint appearances by Mattis and Tillerson showcase a warming of U.S.-Saudi relations under Trump after eight years of tension with former President Barack Obama’s administration, fueled in part by Obama’s outreach to Iran to ink the 2015 nuclear accord.

The diplomatic offensive also underscores what appears to be the administration’s foreign policy theme: counterterrorism and business take pride of place over traditional U.S. concerns including human rights.

Take Yemen. The Saudi-led war there against an Iran-backed Houthi rebellion has drawn widespread criticism from human rights watchdogs and international observers for indiscriminately targeting civilians. The Obama administration butted heads with Riyadh over its heavy-handed intervention, blocking arms sales, publicly rebuking specific bombings, and even curbing intelligence sharing over Saudi Arabia’s disregard for civilian casualties.

Not so under Trump, who began ordering airstrikes against terrorist targets in Yemen and is considering pouring more U.S. intelligence and military hardware into the Saudi-led campaign, including possible aid to help the Saudis capture the critical Yemeni port of al-Huyadah.

“Our goal is for that crisis down there [Yemen] — that ongoing fight — be put in front of a U.N.-brokered negotiating team and try to resolve this politically as soon as possible,” Mattis told reporters Tuesday. “It has gone on for a long time.”

One of the biggest points of contention between Washington and Riyadh in recent years was the Iran nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia, which views Shiite Iran as its main regional rival, slammed the accord as dangerous. Trump, for his part, vowed on the campaign trail to tear up the deal.

But on Tuesday, as it has on many issues, his campaign rhetoric once again collided with reality: Trump extended sanctions relief after reporting Iran was complying with its terms of the deal.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is doing a roadshow of sorts for its economy. For decades, the kingdom — blessed with massive oil reservoirs — attracted huge interest from foreign oil companies. But since the 1980s, the oil fields have been off limits to foreign energy majors. (Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant, is planning a limited public offering next year, which would be a chance for investors to get a piece of what could be the world’s most valuable company.)

Saudi Arabia has had some luck riding its energy sector to plenty of juicy deals with foreign countries, including a $65 billion bundle of deals with China. Now, Saudi Arabia is trying to drum up interest in other undeveloped but potentially promising sectors of the economy, including domestic manufacturing and an advanced defense industry. (By far the most ambitious part of the Saudi economic transformation is to jumpstart the entertainment industry, with such radical notions as movie theaters, live concerts, and a Las Vegas-style entertainment city — because nothing says fun quite like Wahhabism.)

Those economic plans got a golf-clap welcome from Tillerson Wednesday. He said that Saudi Arabia will “find many promising investment opportunities in the United States,” and “when U.S. companies invest in the Saudi economy, everyone wins.”

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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