Thursday, 25th May 2017

Saudi Arabia: Saudis deliver for new friend Trump

Riyadh spent a reported $65m to welcome Donald Trump to the kingdom, on the first leg of his first foreign trip as president. The largesse was designed to reset relations after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when Washington’s perception of human rights sometimes outweighed realpolitik and big deals, and foreign policy came to hinge on the Iran nuclear deal so loathed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain (if less so by other Gulf Co-operation Council allies). Trump and King Salman Bin Abdelaziz presided over a Joint Strategic Vision in which the kingdom and the United States “dedicate themselves to strengthening their strategic partnership for the 21st Century, and to charting a renewed path toward a peaceful Middle East where economic development, trade, and diplomacy are hallmarks of regional and global engagement.”

There were few shades of Obama’s A new beginning speech made during his visit to pre-Arab Spring Cairo in June 2009, but Trump’s presence felt like an even fresher start. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s prominence at the 21 May Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh – enraging his critics with playful banter over shoes with Trump – further confirmed how far Egyptian and other regional politics have shifted in the past few years. Trump showed his experience as a corporate chairman, overseeing big contracts while buttering up his partners, had not gone to waste. By refraining from Twitter and following protocol he appeared more presidential in Riyadh than his detractors might like to admit.

The US-Saudi strategic partnership will be oiled by huge new arms deals. Commitments were also made in the energy arena. Several bilateral agreements were signed promising to create jobs – many in Saudi Arabia but more in America – in line with Trump’s commitment to ‘make America great again’ and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS)’s Vision 2030. King Salman warded off speculation about his frailty by joining Trump in a sword dance. His hosts were rewarded by the best news of all: that The Donald was intent on delivering a message of reconciliation between Washington and Riyadh and had clearly identified Iran as the regional villain. There was no more talk, as on the stump, of Saudi input into 11 September 2001 attacks.

Trump remains mired in Russian-related and other problems back in the Washington swamp, but the Saudi visit – the first time an American president has made Riyadh his initial port of call – could be deemed a triumph. Before his move into the White House, and then in his opening salvos from the Oval Office, Arab states and the wider Muslim community looked on Trump with trepidation. His Riyadh persona was very different, appearing as a caring president. The latest version of The Donald even visited two exhibitions of contemporary art with his wife Melania, both organised by the General Entertainment Authority, created by MBS as the vanguard of his Vision 2030 social agenda. This may just confirm his pathology as a chameleon wheeler-dealer (and political huckster) adapting to circumstances no matter where. Whichever interpretation is more accurate, it was an impressive tactical performance.

Candidate Trump’s clear preference was for moving the US embassy in Israel (his destination after Riyadh) to Jerusalem. His top team exchanged information via back channels with Israeli counterparts; no government felt as confident about its future US relations as Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s. But while it was all smiles on the second leg of Trump’s tour, some of those were strained. Netanyahu could publicly shrug off a still-live Washington scandal that Trump seemingly shared Israeli-derived intelligence on Islamic State with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, but the Saudi arms deals did not go down well. Trump’s keen espousal of building Middle East peace based on a genuine two-state solution, while in line with international orthodoxy, represents an uncomfortable, and unexpected, shift for Netanyahu. And while the president seems intent on encouraging the sense that there is a confluence of interests between Israel and the Arab Gulf states in their fear of Iran (underlined by persistent reports that Israeli and Saudi intelligence services have come into unprecedented alignment on the issue), there will be limits to how far the two US allies will be willing to trust each other, let alone the US president.

The visit poses other longer term questions. Trump behaved well in Riyadh – the minimum required of a president, and perhaps the maximum his hosts expected. His conciliatory tone was far removed from his on-the-stump Muslim-bashing. But with such a transactional and narcissistic leader it is far from clear if this is the starting point of a new strategy or simply an exercise in short-term, shallow expediency. Such high-profile visits can echo over the decades, as Ibn Saud’s meeting with Franklin Roosevelt in 1943 – the first between a Saudi king and a US president – attests. But if once he is back in the Washington swamp Trump’s actions suggest he has deceived his Al-Saud hosts and the expensive hand of friendship they have proffered, how then will what remains of the Arab street respond?

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