Skip to main content

ANALYSIS: Saudi bashing ends as Trump visit signals growing ties with Gulf

Trump's destination choice for his first foreign visit is a clear sign that he wants to reset relations with Gulf states, analysts say
A Saudi Air Force advanced F-15SA fighter jet performs with the Royal Saudi Hawks, the aerobatic team of the Royal Saudi Air Force (AFP)

Donald Trump once claimed a Saudi prince wanted to "control the US", said Saudi Arabia "blew up the World Trade Centre" and insisted that the country "wouldn’t exist" without American help.

Later this week, Trump flies into Riyadh for his first foreign visit, a clear signal the new US president wants to reset relations with Gulf countries after a turbulent first few months, according to analysts.

Trump's mixed messages to the Arab countries during his election campaign - and before - appear to have been supplanted by the president's stronger stance on Iran and Syria, they say.

Arab capitals also appear to have brushed aside the controversial travel ban that prevented citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US for a period of 90 days. Forgotten as well, Trump's accusations that Washington was losing money defending Saudi security.

The US is back

"The US president's trip to Saudi Arabia is a strong signal to traditional allies that the US is 'back'," said Mansour al-Marzoqi, a Saudi politics academic, affiliated with Sciences Po Lyon.

"Also, it is a signal that the posture of the Trump administration of 'America first' can be coupled with a posture of pro-activity in the international arena.

"Moreover, it is a signal to Muslim and Arab countries that the Trump administration is not against them."

US Defense Secretary James Mattis is greeted by Saudi Armed Forces Chief of Joint Staff General Abdul Rahman Al Banyan upon his arrival in Riyadh in April (AFP)

Trump's visit comes weeks after a trip in April by the US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, to Saudi Arabia.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf Institute in Washington, said the earlier trip was successful in reassuring Gulf states about Trump.

"It significantly advanced some of the Trump administration's key goals including stronger financial relationships, greater burden sharing with allies and a stronger focus on countering Iran and counterterrorism," he said.

In Iran's shadow

Among reasons conducive to a Saudi-US rapprochement is the enmity of Washington and Riyadh toward Tehran. The Trump administration has, in a few short months, repeatedly shown it is more amenable to Saudi interests than the administration of Barack Obama, who pursued a nuclear deal that ended most sanctions against Iran.

Gulf countries are thus hoping for US support in rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East. Experts in both Washington and Gulf countries perceive Trump as more willing to tread a path closely aligned with Saudi Arabia and its interests across the region.

Trump 'has to take into account those in his support base who are worried about more American entanglement in the Middle East'

- Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute

Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, is however more pessimistic.

"The US wants to prevent Iranian influence rising through proxies - but whether it can do so depends on many moving factors and is by no means a foregone conclusion," he said.

Yemen's quagmire

In Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition is fighting against Houthi rebels accused by US officials of being funded and trained by Iran.

The US also appears to want to move quickly to a political solution there, by weakening the Houthis into negotiations, while strengthening Saudi Arabia's position.

"The US administration is happy to follow and back the Saudi-led forces efforts in Yemen. The US would like to see hostilities end sooner so it can distance itself from the Yemeni conflict," said Vatanka.

US politicians grow sceptical of Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen
Read More »

Another complexity of the war in Yemen is the fight against al-Qaeda. The battle against that group's Yemen franchise has no real chance of succeeding without the emergence of a strong central government and a functioning state.

"These two elements on the one hand, and the predominance of the alliance between the Iran-backed Houthi militia and president Saleh forces on the other, are mutually exclusive. Thus, fighting al-Qaeda starts with the Houthi militia becoming a political party and Saleh's acceptance of an inclusive political process," said Marzoqi. 

The Houthis, by following in the footsteps of Hezbollah, Iran's proxy in Lebanon, is also regarded as unacceptable by Washington.

"That is why there is a much stronger willingness in DC to support the Arab coalition. It is also a way of harassing Iran in general," says Ibish.

No grand vision for Syria

Experts interviewed by Middle East Eye agreed for the most part that there was no grand American vision on Syria. "The US first needs to create some leverage for itself there," says Vatanka.

Yet Arab countries see as positive the US strike against the Syrian Shayrat airbase in April, after a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun largely blamed on the Assad government, which is believed to have killed about 100 people.

Cooperation between the US and Gulf countries will probably strengthen at the level of numerous dossiers, including defence and economy.

In March the US State Department announced it would proceed with a $5bn sale of fighter jets to Bahrain, initially delayed under the Obama administration, over concerns about the Gulf state's human rights record.

Sporadic protests against the Bahraini government have erupted over the last few years (AFP)

"With the UAE, it's likely to be very operational, particularly regarding joint military actions, especially regarding special forces, such as the recent raids in Yemen. With Saudi Arabia, it will probably be in broad strategic terms, combining major economic initiatives and a general reorientation of American policy in the region back towards the Arab side," Ibish said.  

Vatanka warns nonetheless that GCC states should remember that Trump was not elected as an interventionist president in the same mould of George W Bush.

"He has to take into account those in his support base who are worried about more American entanglement in the Middle East. This will reduce Trump's ability to be the kind of activist president that some in the GCC might want to see," he said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.