Introduction: Trump Changes Everything
What a difference an administration makes. In the last, dying days of the presidency of Barack Obama, US-Saudi ties—long a mainstay of American foreign policy—seemed to hit an all-time low. Whether the issue was Congress probing official Saudi complicity in the 9/11 attacks (wherein 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi), tensions over the fracking revolution and its threat to Riyadh’s dominance of the global energy market, or the White House bringing Iran in from the cold, the Saudi princes and the Obama administration seemed increasingly locked into diametrically opposed positions. The imminent demise of this central pillar of traditional US foreign policy seemed increasingly likely.
But that was then, this is now. With the shocking advent of the Trump administration, while the rest of the world cowers in uncertainty, the regime of King Salman (and his favoured son Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) can barely contain its glee. Suddenly, Saudi Arabia has gone in a blink of an eye from pariah to partner. What explains this dramatic sea-change in US-Saudi relations and is it likely to last, strategically changing the new map the Obama White House laid down for America’s relations with the Middle East as a whole?
Obama’s bold Middle East Strategy
Barack Obama’s Middle East strategy is emblematic of his presidency as a whole: it is rational, innovative, measured, and not fated to survive as the old White House was so ghastly at both domestic political and policy follow-through. While Obama did indeed advocate a creative, realist foreign policy for the region, he never groomed a political heir to follow in his footsteps.
The result of this cardinal mistake left America at the last, dispiriting election choosing between a creaky Wilsonian in Hillary Clinton and a mad-as-hell Jacksonian nationalist in Donald Trump. The basic point is that neither candidate was likely to sustain Obama’s realist strategic shifts in foreign policy, rendering them an impermanent and ethereal blip on America’s overall foreign policy radar. This is a tragedy for both the US and the world as the former president analytically got a lot right about the new era we live in, even if he did almost nothing practical to sustain his new foreign policy vision.
For Obama it is self-evident that the US now finds itself in a multipolar world, where the United States remains first amongst equals by a long way at the global power table, but where rising powers (from an admittedly low base) are relatively gaining on Washington, year on year.
This cresting of American power showed itself most tragically and graphically in Washington fighting a catastrophic war of choice in Iraq, the end result of which was to hugely discredit American power across the globe, leave Iran the dominant power in the strategic Persian Gulf, and to (in the predictable vacuum that was created due to Sunni political disenfranchisement) lead indirectly to the rise of the diabolical ISIS. By doing as the president put it, ‘Stupid Stuff,’ Washington’s neoconservative hawks had unwittingly opened Pandora’s Box, exposing America’s limitations for all the world to see.
This avoidable debacle–which sprung directly from neoconservatives on the right and Democratic hawks on the left jointly overrating America’s power in the world—now had to be corrected. Coupled with the Lehman global economic crisis of 2008, it was clear to Obama that the new era was now one of multipolarity. Overall American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, stood in desperate need of a course change more accurately reflecting these new global power realties.
So Obama began the laborious process of trying to extricate America from its over-involvement in the Middle East, ideally moving it toward the role of off-shore balancer. This meant Iran–long the great enemy in the region of both Riyadh and Washington—had to be brought in from the cold. This was duly accomplished through Obama’s landmark nuclear deal with Tehran, which Saudi Arabia hated for both tactical as well as these more strategic reasons.
For Obama desired a Middle East of five great regional powers–Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and Iran—which over time would form an organic balance of power. This meant America, rather than wasting ever-more blood and treasure in the sands of the region, could instead concentrate on East Asia where things were both strategically and economically rosier. America would only have to intervene in the Middle East if one of these five countries grew too powerful, upsetting the organic balance. Short of this, America would have extricated itself from the regional morass, even leaving some semblance of stability in its wake.
Obviously, such an American regional strategy was anathema to Riyadh, as it diminished US ties to Saudi Arabia, built up Washington’s heretofore fraught links with the great enemy Iran, and lessened the sole superpower’s involvement in the Middle East as a whole. Looked at from this grand strategic level it is easy to see why King Salman found the administration of Barack Obama such a danger to Saudi Arabia’s long-term interests.
Trump returns the old order
But due to Obama’s inability (and even disinclination) to groom a realist foreign policy heir and the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, things are rapidly returning to normal in the Middle East. Gone is the talk of off-shore balancing and improving ties with Iran, and with it the downgrading in importance of formerly close US-Saudi relations. Instead, both (often warring) foreign policy camps in the Trump White House espouse strategies that unwittingly move Saudi-US links back to centre stage.
The more ideological wing of the Trump White House—epitomised by Senior Counsellor and erstwhile National Security Council (NSC) member Steve Bannon and the new president himself—sees (utterly wrongly in my view) radical Islam as the number one global threat to America. Here, and despite the long-running 9/11 controversy, Saudi Arabia has form as a counter-terror partner.
Indeed, Crown Prince (and also current Interior Minister) Mohammed bin Nayef made his name as the man who effectively eradicated al-Qaeda from his homeland. The new Trump administration has signalled its approval for bin Nayef by awarding him the CIA’s George Tenet medal for his work in counter-terrorism. With ISIS on the wane (though work still has to be done to dislodge them from their capital of Raqqa in Syria) and al-Qaeda regrouping, Bannon and his colleagues see Riyadh as a vital ally in the ongoing fight against (in their view) this primary American enemy.
Likewise, the other more traditionally realist faction in the Trump White House’s foreign policy team—signified by General James Mattis at the Pentagon, Mike Pompeo at the CIA and General H.R. McMaster at the NSC—sees old enemy Iran as still the primary American nemesis in the region as a whole.
During their initial January 29, 2017 phone call, President Trump told King Salman that he agreed with the Saudis that Tehran is the greatest threat to regional stability, and that the hated Iran nuclear deal must be vigorously enforced. This is obviously music to Riyadh’s ears, particularly after its concerns over Iran were met by a very different mixture of neglect and derision by the old Obama White House.
Since the start of his insurgent campaign, Trump has belittled the Iranian nuclear deal—the centrepiece of Obama’s efforts in the region—disdaining it as a terrible pact. While he has grudgingly agreed to support the agreement for now, the new administration has also made it very clear they will aggressively enforce its provisions for oversight of the Iranian nuclear programme, being ever-vigilant for any signs of Iranian cheating.
General Mattis, the former commander of US forces in the region, well remembers that Iraqi Shia militia, allied with Iran, killed many of his men. He has unequivocally gone on the record saying Iran is the world’s ‘biggest sponsor of terrorism.’
Strikingly, then, over the Middle East these two warring foreign policy factions—for the very different priorities of radical Islam and Iran—have bureaucratically found common cause over a return to what amounts to the old, traditional American regional policy of support for a Sunni axis in the region (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt) plus Israel, against both Iran and radical Sunni jihadism.
The Trump White House’s downgrading of the importance of human rights in crafting overall American foreign policy is also pleasing to the repressive (or increasingly repressive in the case of Turkey) regimes in Riyadh, Cairo, and Ankara. Due to this American foreign policy bureaucratic compromise, things on the surface have quickly and startlingly returned to normal in terms of America’s Middle East policy, with Saudi Arabia resuming its central role in US strategic thinking.
Irritants Plaguing US-Saudi ties
But as the American novelist Thomas Wolfe makes clear with his book title, You Can’t Go Home Again. The Trump White House’s Middle East policy is bound to founder, both due to its ongoing frictions, myriad contradictions, and the simple geostrategic fact that the world has definitively changed, much as Barack Obama sensed that it had.
For all their broader strategic alignment, over many important issues Saudi Arabia and the US remain far apart. The cavalier (in this case utterly historically merited) disregard the Trump team places over negotiating a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement rankles the Saudis, who have paid much traditional lip service to the importance of such a deal.
Likewise, while Washington under Obama vacillated but limited its exposure to the hell that is Syria, Riyadh has been more closely identified with supporting the anti-Assad rebels, even as the US has concentrated on ridding the world of ISIS. While King Salman made it clear to the president during their January 2107 conversation that he supports Trump’s call for humanitarian safe havens in the country, even if these can be managed (a highly dubious proposition) the two countries have widely differing primary goals in that war-ravaged country.
The final irritant is that the fracking revolution has caught everyone unawares, lessening America’s direct dependence on Saudi oil and thus on the centrality of the relationship itself. In 2003, the US imported 648 million barrels of oil from Riyadh. This has dramatically shrunk to just 387 million barrels in 2015.
Worse geo-economically for the Saudis, with the emergence of America as the third energy superpower (along with Saudi Arabia and Russia), fracking has put a permanent ceiling on global prices. As they rise, fracking comes back online quickly, as costs for fracking are far lower to bring rigs on and off line than they are for the fixed oil platforms which dominate both Saudi and Russian production.
In essence, this permanent ceiling means the Saudis (through their proxy, OPEC) have lost control over calling the tune for global energy prices permanently. This huge geo-economic shift will have obvious and lasting effects on US-Saudi ties, serving to diminish them as the new energy reality becomes clearer.
The Practical Contradictions Threatening Trump’s Middle East Policy
Additionally, both wings of Trump’s foreign policy team are going to have to deal with the obvious contradictions that spring from their bureaucratic political agreement to return America to a Sunni-driven (plus Israel) regional policy. A most obvious geostrategic contradiction stems from the Trump team’s notorious desire to do more with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, even as it ostracizes the Kremlin’s longstanding ally, Iran.
For if the US wants to do less in the Middle East—as ironically both Trump and Obama agree on—working with Iran becomes practically essential. In Iraq, Washington needs Tehran’s help to stabilise the country following ISIS’s (inevitable) defeat in Mosul, as the dominant Shia political parties in Baghdad are under Iran’s sway. Also, in desperate Syria, the increasingly ascendant Assad, Russian, and Iranian forces must be accommodated if ISIS is to be eradicated in the east of the country.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam-like foray into what amounts to a civil war with the Iranian-backed Houthis has led to a debilitating stalemate which has allowed the local branch of al-Qaeda to prosper. Again, help from Iran is necessary to disentangle Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent, the US) from the morass and to take the fight to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In each of these practical policy cases, Iran simply cannot be wished away. Its relative ascendancy over the past few years vis a vis Saudi Arabia means that it must either be engaged, and these devilish problems addressed, or it can be shunned and the region as a whole will continue to burn.
The geopolitical contradictions threatening Trump’s Middle East policy
Things are even worse for the ideologues clustered around Bannon in the Trump White House, those who believe that radical Islam is the greatest foreign policy challenge confronting the United States. They are surely, obviously, wrong about this.
Instead, the tragedy of American foreign policy analysis is that following on from 9/11, radical Islam went from being an understudied second-order problem to an over-studied second order problem. But compared with the ascendance of China as a long-term American competitor, the rise of other Emerging Markets and powers and the dawn of the new multipolar era, radical Islam lacks the capacity to change the very nature of the world in the way these other challenges do. As such, this basic geopolitical misreading of the world will inevitably skew American foreign policy away from focusing on the things that really strategically matter.
Even assuming somehow that Bannon’s view of the world is correct and radical Islam is the primary long-term threat to the United States, the Janus-faced nature of the Saudi regime over the radical Islam issue provides little room for comfort. For if the Saudi government did not officially support the 9/11 hijackers, as the 9/11 commission report makes clear elements of the far-flung royal family surely did.
Riyadh’s bankrolling of radical Wahabist preachers around the world has not helped America’s war against radical Islam, to put it mildly. For every Prince Mohammed bin Nayef—a Saudi leader rightly concerned about what the spread of radical Islam could mean for the survival of the House of Saud itself—there is a murkier, more ambiguous tale to tell about Saudi Arabia and radical Islam.
But the limits to Riyadh’s help in combatting radical Islam is not the only geostrategic problem for Bannon’s allies. Donald Trump came to power espousing an overall ‘America First’ view of the world. Put simply, the US should focus intensely on its interests to the exclusion of all else, and primarily should transactionally work with those countries who help it achieve its immediate goals.
The problem with translating this set of America-First impulses to the Middle East is that the Saudis just don’t allow the US to do this. It is ties with hated Iran—far more than Saudi Arabia—which hold the key to ‘solving’ the Iraq, Iran, and Yemeni crises. Iran, as the champion of Shia Islam, likewise has no real links to the Sunni radicalism at the base of the ISIS and al-Qaeda movements (compared to Riyadh’s ambiguous ties). Even Saudi Arabia’s energy pre-eminence is no more, due to America’s shale revolution. So using President Trump’s own America-First terms, Saudi Arabia will not be very helpful in stabilising the Middle East.
Conclusion: The peril is you become everything you despise
So if closer US-Saudi ties—and the doing away with the Obama administration’s more even-handed dealings with Iran in the region—lead to nothing much being accomplished in the region, what will the Trump White House then do? The traditional American temptation, to ‘do more’ in the Middle East has led to countless tragedies, and is in direct contradiction to the president’s own ‘America First’ proclivities, that the US should steer clear of foreign entanglements that do not directly and obviously benefit the United States.
But just because the history is clear and Trump’s own proclivities are known does not mean that America will resist the siren song of further involvement in the Middle East, when it becomes clear to all that a return to intimate US-Saudi ties no longer yields very much in terms of the White House’s hoped-for transactional foreign policy.
Returning to the comforts of close US-Saudi ties may presently make bureaucratic sense in Donald Trump’s Washington. But these old ties were the product of a very different geopolitical world. In the new multipolar era, American links with Saudi Arabia will yield less and less. It will be at this crucial point, a few years hence, that America must forgo its interventionist reflexes, and remember that it is Barack Obama’s off-shore balancing position which actually furthers American interests in this very new world we find ourselves in.
John Hulsman is President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk consulting firm.