The Saudis are thrilled that Barack Obama is out of office. But will they get what they need from the Trump administration?
- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based Deca journalist.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Before Donald Trump was elected president, Marwa found the candidate’s statements odious. He was “very aggressive against Muslims,” the recent college graduate remembers. She is 23 and has lived her whole adult life watching Barack Obama, who never uttered such words about her religion.
Yet after taking office, Marwa continues, “Trump completely changed.” Rather than working against Saudis like her, the U.S. president spoke out against Iran, scaled up support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and was “so supportive of the Syrian cause.”
“I don’t know why or how he changed, but he just seemed to change,” she says. Marwa is still repulsed by Trump’s rhetoric toward Muslims and Syrian refugees, but she’s willing to overlook that for action in the Middle East. Some of her former classmates are now fighting on the border with Yemen, and “of course” they need more U.S. support, she says.
Marwa and many more Saudis have placed their hopes in Trump to walk back the policies of the Obama administration. For the last eight years, Saudi policymakers and citizens alike were haunted by doubt over the health of the bilateral relationship. To their eyes, the United States was pivoting toward Iran, forfeiting its hand in the Middle East to Russia, and becoming coldly transactional in its dealings with the Gulf.
“We kept asking ourselves: Is it America, or is it Obama?” says Awadh al-Badi, a scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. “The region was lost to some extent.”
With a new administration at the helm in Washington, Riyadh is taking no chances to engage its most important ally. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a powerful 30-something technocrat who manages everything from the Defense Ministry to economic reform, has spearheaded an effort to fortify the relationship. The deputy crown prince visited Washington in March to have lunch with Trump, in a meeting Mohammed bin Salman’s advisors proclaimed as a “historical turning point” in bilateral ties.
Insiders say the young prince sees a kindred spirit in Jared Kushner, a fellow 30-something with an oversized portfolio. Kushner sat in on Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Mohammed bin Salman in March, and Saudi watchers are keen to see if he joins the president’s delegation to the kingdom this week.
Riyadh deployed Mohammed bin Salman’s brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, to Washington as the new ambassador, a move that puts Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic representation just one ear away from the king. “This appointment is a clear indication that ‘the closest person to me is my representative with you,’” Badi says.
The most obvious manifestation of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic push will come this week, as Trump stops in the kingdom on his first overseas trip. The visit will mark a stunning reversal from a U.S. president who once taunted Saudi royalty on Twitter, demanded free oil, and vowed to call in payment for years of U.S. security guarantees in the Gulf. The about-face may be just the beginning.
“Saudi-U.S. relations are compensating [for] losses of the Obama years in almost all dimensions,” says Abdullah al-Shammari, a former Saudi diplomat and newspaper columnist. “If we go along 2017 with such high performance, Obama’s period will not be regarded as a page in the Saudi-U.S. book, but as a few lines.”
A new alignment
The U.S.-Saudi relationship has long been a sort of Catholic marriage, with ties going through strong and weak periods — but neither party seriously pondering divorce.
Throughout much of this time, Saudi Arabia relied on history and personality to make its case in Washington. Charismatic past Saudi ambassadors such as Prince Bandar bin Sultan cultivated intimate ties to multiple American presidents. A skeleton political staff at the embassy offered support, but mostly the country hired public relations firms to talk to the media and Congress. In the first quarter of 2016, for example, Riyadh shelled out more than $2 million to Washington lobbyists.
That strategy seemed to work until the administration of Barack Obama, a president who was less inclined to make policy based on the firmness of a handshake. The 44th president operated in a way that Gulf insiders unflatteringly described as “transactional.” In part to secure Gulf backing for a nuclear deal with Tehran, Obama sold more weapons to the kingdom than his predecessors. To assuage Saudi fears of Iranian influence, the Obama administration backed a Saudi-led military coalition to oust Houthi rebels from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
By the end of Obama’s presidency, however, the quid pro quo had gone sour. The Yemen war had dragged on close to two years, and civilian casualties were mounting. In December 2016, the Obama administration blocked the transfer of precision munitions to the kingdom, after walking back its advisory support to the military coalition months earlier. Congress also seemed to have it out for Saudi Arabia: Last fall, the Senate overrode an Obama veto to pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which in practice allows U.S. citizens to sue the Saudi government for alleged complicity in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Outwardly, Saudi Arabia blamed Obama for the disagreements. But there was internal soul-searching, too. Inside policymaking circles, Qorvis, one of Saudi Arabia’s long-employed Washington PR firms, took on the nickname “Horribis” for its ineffectiveness at influencing U.S. policy.
“Saudi in the past had a big failure in this, to properly represent ourselves in Washington,” says Salman al-Ansari, the founder and president of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee. “Narrative is something that Saudi Arabia needs to take very seriously.”
Mohammed bin Salman has already taken one step toward seizing influence back from the PR firms — he has emerged as the voice of Saudi Arabia by giving numerous interviews to the international media. There’s no understating what a monumental shift that is from the old way of doing business: For years, Riyadh largely offered official comment to journalists only through its embassies in Washington and London and, even then, rarely replied by deadline. Now in just his two years in office, the deputy crown prince has given at times hourslong interviews to Bloomberg, the Economist, the Washington Post, and Saudi-owned TV network Al Arabiya, among others.
He has used almost every occasion to emphasize the U.S.-Saudi relationship. “Our partnership with the U.S. is huge. Oil is only a small part of it,” Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg, in one of his first interviews with Western media. “Oil was just the beginning for us.”
The ministers of everything
It’s up to Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and favorite son of King Salman, to spearhead the effort to regain Riyadh’s lost influence in Washington.
Mohammed bin Salman’s role alone provides heft to the outreach. The deputy crown prince has ambitiously absorbed portfolios since being named to the line of succession in 2015. As the defense minister, guru of a massive economic reform program, public voice of the leadership, and author of a total government reorganization, he is someone Trump can take seriously. He also knows Washington well: His trip to meet with Trump in March was his fourth visit to the United States in less than two years, says Fahad Nazer, a political consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington who spoke in his personal capacity and not as a government representative.
Insiders say Mohammed bin Salman — no stranger to family politics — may also be building relationships with Trump’s familial advisors. “The main guy for us is Jared Kushner, the secretary of everything,” Ansari says. “And since we have our own Minister of Everything, I think it can work well. They both have a vision and the same mindset of reform.”
The Saudi push extends to the private sector, which the kingdom views as vital. Mohammed bin Salman has met with “the CEOs of some of America’s biggest companies, both in the U.S. and in Riyadh,” including in the tech and financial industries, Nazar says.
Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts have paid off. He was responsible for orchestrating the president’s upcoming visit to Riyadh, according to the Saudi foreign minister, who tweeted his gratitude to the young prince just after the White House announced its planned travel.
“Great effort by the Deputy Crown Prince in managing the Saudi-U.S. relationship,” wrote Adel al-Jubeir, himself a former ambassador to Washington.
From a compound in southwest Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s assertive stance on U.S. relations is already having a concrete impact. In his sparsely decorated office, the secretary-general of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) describes emboldened Saudi support.
“I think the Saudis are more active [on Syria] with the new [U.S.] administration,” says Safwan Akkash, who is also the HNC’s permanent representative in Riyadh. He says Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf allies have reinvigorated a push to unite rebel factions.
Though Saudi Arabia backed the Syrian opposition off and on during the Obama years, it was always within the limits set by Riyadh’s fraught relationship with Washington. But in policy circles here, expectations are now high for stronger engagement. And Syria is just one battleground where stronger U.S.-Saudi ties are likely to play out. The Trump administration is hoping to finalize an arms sale to the kingdom worth some $100 billion to coincide with the president’s visit. Yemen, Iraq, Egypt and even Afghanistan could see the ripple effects.
The U.S. strike in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons signaled, “‘I am in,’” Badi, the King Faisal Center scholar, says. “It put America back in the game” of Middle East power politics.
On the ground, too, Akkash and Shammari believe a long-delayed proposal from Riyadh to send troops to Syria from the countries in its Islamic military alliance may be back on the table. One possibility would be for the troops to man safe passage corridors for civilians in northern Syria or take part in operations meant to dislodge the Islamic State from strongholds in the cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
“Riyadh is very enthusiastic in cooperating with President Trump in fighting terrorism and extremism in the Middle East,” Shammari says. “We may expect to hear news on the Islamic alliance for combating terrorism in the upcoming months.”
Muslim ban tensions
Saudi Arabia’s renewed push in Washington is aimed at civilians as well, hoping to improve American public sentiment as a hedge against electoral politics. Saudi Arabia’s new representatives in Washington are more likely to be U.S.-educated Saudis like Ansari and less likely to be flacks from K Street lobbying firms.
But back in Riyadh’s cafes, Saudis themselves are retrenching. Many here express distaste for Trump personally. They wrinkle their noses describing his rhetoric on Islam, his policy toward Syrian refugees, and his unrefined tone. The administration’s travel ban didn’t affect Saudi citizens, but it did impact Arab expats living here.
Seated on a bench outside a grocery store, a Saudi retiree named Bandar describes how he and his family traveled to the United States each summer for decades. They went even after the 9/11 attacks and the concomitant rise of Islamophobia.
But they aren’t planning to go under Trump’s administration. “He raised hatred,” says Bandar’s daughter, Nadjla. The family fears discrimination or even deportation, since they wear traditional Islamic dress. “Racism is OK. Actually now it’s ‘in,’ not just OK,” Nadjla says, adding that one of her Syrian teachers in Saudi Arabia was turned away from the United States during Trump’s initial travel ban.
The public ambivalence offers a glimpse of how better ties could quickly unravel. To compensate for his Islamophobic comments, the Saudi public has high expectations for how Trump can transform the region. Trump’s visit will put the Iranian “bully” in its place and “redraw” U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the region, Saudi media have proclaimed ahead of the visit. Bandar rattles off the list of problems he wants the U.S. president to solve: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Yemen and Syria, and Iranian influence throughout the region.
Inevitably, there will be disappointments. One partner, or perhaps both, will find it hard to keep up with the expectations of today’s courting. For now, however, neither side seems eager for the honeymoon to end.
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