Gerald M. Feierstein was U.S. ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2013. He is currently director of the Center for Gulf Affairs for the Middle East Institute. This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration. The views expressed are the author’s own.
Like many capitals around the world, Riyadh is waiting anxiously to understand more about the direction the Trump administration intends to take on Mideast policy. The Saudis undoubtedly welcomed the departure of President Barack Obama, who they increasingly viewed as a source of constant disappointment and frustration, as much as they will welcome the advent of new leadership in Washington. On Nov. 9, King Salman sent a warm message congratulating Trump and wishing him “every success in your missions to achieve security and stability in the Middle East region and the world as a whole.”
There is certainly some reason for the Saudis to believe that there will be a greater congruity of interests between the United States and Saudi Arabia with the new administration, based on the statements that the new president made on the campaign trail. The Saudis will undoubtedly welcome a U.S. regional posture that confronts Iranian bad behavior more aggressively, as the Kingdom is unwilling to allow the thaw in U.S.-Iran relations during Obama’s tenure to color its determination to challenge Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions. At the same time, they will watch carefully to ensure that a more robust U.S. posture vis-à-vis an aggrandizing Iran does not translate into a conflict that could become uncontrollable and substantially undermine security and stability in the region. Although not speaking officially for the government of Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki al-Faisal likely reflects official Saudi views when he advocates against abandoning the Iran nuclear agreement.
Trump and the Sunni Powers
Despite recent differences between Saudi Arabia and Egypt over regional policies, the Saudis will also take some comfort from signals that the Trump administration is likely to set aside concerns about Egyptian domestic policies and embrace the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi more wholeheartedly. The Saudis will see a willingness in Washington to focus on the pursuit of common interests in the fight against violent extremism and global terrorism while deprioritizing issues of democratization, human rights, and civil liberties as an approach that will reduce friction with the new administration and allow for greater cooperation not only bilaterally but more broadly between the United States and the Sunni Arab world.
Despite the positive elements of President Trump’s limited comments on foreign policy issues while campaigning, there are also aspects of the new administration’s pronouncements that could create problems for the Saudis. The Kingdom will probably not see the prospect of a closer U.S.-Russian arrangement in the Middle East as purely negative. But they will be concerned if that greater cooperation undercuts the moderate Syrian opposition and undermines the prospect of regime change in Damascus. The Saudis will interpret the long-term survival of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria as a gift to Tehran, strengthening Iran’s hand in the region and reinforcing Iranian encirclement of the Arabian Peninsula.
As a presidential candidate, Trump also oddly echoed President Obama’s misinformed assertions that the Saudis were not shouldering a fair burden of responsibility for their defense, demanding that the Saudis “pay billions” for U.S. security guarantees. However, Saudi Arabia’s defense budget is in fact the third highest in the world, trailing only the United States and China, and Riyadh spends a greater percentage of its gross domestic product on the purchase of defense goods and services than even the United States. The Saudis will be at pains early on to explain their defense posture to the new administration, however with the confirmation last week of Gen. James Mattis as defense secretary, they will at the very least have an interlocutor at the Pentagon who understands the reality of U.S.-Saudi defense cooperation in detail.
Riyadh and Radicalism
Troubling, too, have been the assertions by several in the Trump camp that equate Saudi Arabia’s Salafi religious sect with Islamic extremism and with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Saudis have thus far declined to meddle in issues related to Muslims and Islam in the United States, and they will hope that these issues will fade from the new Trump administration’s lexicon as the focus shifts from campaigning to governing. But that silence will be short-lived should campaign rhetoric translate into unfavorable policies toward the Kingdom. Their concern will be particularly great if those policies threaten the security and well being of the nearly 35,000 Saudis currently studying in U.S. colleges and universities.
The Saudis will also be watching to see whether assertions about Saudi links, official or unofficial, to global terrorism affect the willingness of the Trump administration to work with Congress to amend or discard the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, perhaps the most significant potential friction point in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Trump said little about JASTA during the election, and although his campaign condemned President Obama's veto of the legislation, his views on the matter remain murky. As a businessman, the president-elect may be inclined to see JASTA as an unwelcome impediment to U.S.-Saudi private sector cooperation. But given his history of litigiousness as well as his strongly expressed views on Islamic extremism, he may not be inclined to pressure the Hill to fix the legislation, and this will be problematic for the Saudis.
Finally, the Saudis will follow with interest Donald Trump’s energy policies. To the extent that the United States relaxes environmental safeguards and presses for increased domestic oil and gas production, the net effect will be continued low energy prices globally, with a direct effect on Saudi Arabia’s economic bottom line.
The Saudis no doubt can find aspects of a possible Trump foreign policy that they can embrace and other aspects that may be sources of concern or disagreement. Riyadh will be waiting and watching to see whether rhetoric ultimately matches up to reality.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece erroneously said that the Trump campaign had made no comment on JASTA during the election. This error has been corrected and updated.