Long-time partners the United States and Saudi Arabia, suffered a set back in their relationship when the Obama administration signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Saudi-U.S. policy experts from the region say the situation greatly improved under President Donald Trump and that a good relationship between two countries is important for a stable Middle East.
“Relations between the two countries have grown especially warm under U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Saudi de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman, who was elevated to crown prince in mid-2017,” said a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report.
While Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper reached Riyadh on Oct. 21 as tensions intensified between Tehran and Washington—three experts told The Epoch Times that the context to the United States and Saudi relationship under Trump is not just based on the regional security needs and has other unique features.
Trumps relationship with Saudi Arabia encompasses many other factors, including Saudi Arabias vision for societal, economic, and political development.
Deterioration of U.S.-Saudi relations
The United States and Saudi Arabias relationship was built on economic ties and security partnerships. A Brookings report mentions that the 1980s and 1990s was a period of “unprecedented cooperation” between the United States and Saudi Arabia; however, after that, the relationship deteriorated.
“It began to go sour in 2000 when President Bill Clinton failed to get both a Syrian-Israeli peace at the Shepherdstown peace conference and a Palestinian-Israel peace at Camp David,” said the Brookings report by Bruce Riedel.
The relationships further deteriorated during President George W. Bushs time, and “9/11 made it all worse.” Things worsened during Obamas time with various disagreements over political equations in the Middle East, making things worse.
King Salman “snubbed Obama once, waged war in Yemen, executed dozens of accused terrorists, and built a broad 34-nation Islamic military alliance against Iran,” said Riedel.
The CFR report said during Obamas time; the two nations differed on core issues.
“Saudi Arabia was dismayed by the lack of U.S. support for ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and that it was not included in initial negotiations on Irans nuclear program, which were conducted in secret in Oman in 2013. Saudi leadership also chafed at President Obamas vision that the kingdom share the neighborhood with Iran,'” said CFR.
Dr. Joseph A. Kéchichian, Senior Fellow, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, told The Epoch Times in an email: “President Obama loathed Arabs in general and Saudis in particular so it was natural that most thinking Arab leaders would draw the right conclusions, and distance themselves from Obama. Yet, Arabs have not distanced themselves from the United States and were unlikely to [be] doing so anytime soon.”
Strongest Contender to Counter Iran
Experts said among various factors that greatly strengthened Trumps relationship with Saudi Arabia was the withdrawal on May 8, 2018 of the nuclear deal with Iran, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Obama signed with Iran.
“Trump has certainly greatly improved the U.S.-Saudi relationship, whether through his tough stance on Iran and the nuclear deal (JCPOA) or through resisting congressional and other pressure to penalize the Saudis for their war in Yemen or for the apparent implication of crown prince MBS in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center told The Epoch Times via email.
Another expert, Manjari Singh, who conducted a research project at the University of Jordan and is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, told the Epoch Times that withdrawal from JCPOA brought Saudi Arabia closer to the United States.
“As one is aware that Saudi Arabia has been for long raising its voice against Iran for sponsoring and financing terrorism in the region in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq etc. as well as for using the upliftment of sanctions since 2015 for its ballistic missile development which the Kingdom felt was a threat for the entire region; the withdrawal in that context brought much respite and assured the Kingdom that its voice was being heard,” said Singh.
Kéchichian said Trump is not an exception in giving importance to Saudi Arabi, and the relationship between the two allies has been “important for America for decades.”
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been important to all American presidents for over 80 years, and the Trump Administration is no exception even if media outlets perceive inexistent conspiracies between Trump and Riyadh,” said Kéchichian.
“In reality, the Kingdom perceives Iran as an existential threat, and this American president shares that view,” he added.
Earlier this year in July, Trump bypassed Congress to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. Opposing the joint resolution passed by Congress that disapproved the issuance of an export license for the proposed transfer of defense articles, defense services, and technical data related to the arms, the Trump administration said in a statement:
“The transfer of Paveway precision-guided capability to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia directly supports the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States. It does so by improving the security of a friendly country that continues to be an important force for political and economic stability in the Middle East.”
The administration said the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia is important to defend the United States and its allies interests from Iran and its proxies in the region.
Singh said in addition to bringing financial benefit to the United States, the arms deal also helped build trust between the two countries and helped to check the growing influence of Iran and its proxies in the region.
Kéchichian, however, said there are no surprises in the arms deal. “Arms sales are always tricky questions, but Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars in Washington over the years. Congress was aware of these sales and approved them.
“Periodically, and under Israeli pressure, Congress blocked certain purchases by the Kingdom, but the sales eventually went through. This is a business relationship, and there are alternative sources that can be tapped, so everyone is aware of what is at stake,” he said.