Throughout the 2016 election campaign Donald Trump spoke brashly about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The hyper-conservative Gulf State has been lambasted for extending Wahhabism overtly, and supporting terrorism covertly. Liberals, conservatives, and United States detractors alike gazed in awe as Presidential candidate Trump stood up against the Kingdom. That position has shifted. Keeping with the norms of US Presidents before him, Trump is reversing his stance on Saudi Arabia in favor of a healthier relationship that could benefit his Middle East doctrine in the long run.
Donald Trump on the campaign trail claimed Saudi Arabia “blew up the World Trade Center” during a heated exchange on Fox & Friends. The statement reverberated among those eventual Trump voters whose “one issue” is Islam and terrorism. Unfortunately, their fear and claim isn’t unfounded. Saudi Arabia does sponsor the spread of Wahhabism throughout the world, which can play a role in radicalizing young men into extremism. And an overwhelming majority of 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. However, there is no evidence that the government of Saudi Arabia planned these attacks. Donald Trump was happy to cash out the votes for opposing Saudi Arabia, but will end up appeasing and cozying up to the Gulf giant in the long run.
Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh is the first stop on his overseas trip, pointing to the significance of the venture. An interesting note is how Trump is willing to overlook the human rights violations which he spoke out against during his campaign. We have already seen Donald Trump speak to two leaders whose violations have drawn attention. President Obama refused to invite Egyptian President el-Sisi to the White House. Trump has spoken with him, and Xi Jinping – the President of China. On his visit to Saudi Arabia Trump will be confirming one of the largest weapon deals in US history that was stalled under Obama. The 100$ billion dollar arms transfer will be used to supplement Saudi Arabia’s ongoing conflict along their border state in Yemen – where thousands of civilians have been killed reportedly by the Saudi’s indiscriminate bombing campaign. Yemen has now become an internationally recognized humanitarian crisis. And Trump’s support for this war is unlikely to see it end anytime sooner.
Why would Donald Trump reverse his populist stance against the Saudis? In my view he must have learned that unfortunately diplomacy is much more complicated than a business deal. Conspiracy theorist’s will claim it is the United States bending at the power of Saudi oil. However, the United States only imports 13% of its oil from the Gulf. Instead this is a “reset” on Middle East relations for the Trump administration. Shifting their focus from his campaign rhetoric, Donald Trump is assuring Saudi Arabia that they are still a keystone ally in the Middle East. It is important to realize that the Middle East is currently going through their own “Cold War.” Saudi Arabia and Iran are elbowing for de facto control and hegemony in the region. And, their proxy wars in Yemen and Syria are causing more pain than progress. If the United States goal is to rid Syria of ISIS, Iranian influence, and eventually it is presumed they will go after Assad, strong relations with Saudi Arabia is crucial. Saudi Arabia may be conservative at times fighting alongside the United States, but they have supported our military ventures in the past – most notably the first Gulf War. A coalition of Arab states must be the forces to quell the seemingly endless cycle of violence, and Saudi Arabia will likely lead that campaign.
While I am on the side that feels the need to criticize Saudi Arabia for its activities, Donald Trump proposing future long term cooperation may be the right move. There is no way to get Saudi Arabia to publicly shift its stance on conservative Islam, and so progressing on this point should be left to primarily public endeavors. As Trump concludes his meeting with Saudi Arabia, he will be positioning himself as a President who is willing to overlook anything to get the deal done. Someone that the Prince’s of the Saudi state have been waiting for.