Dr. Theodore Karasik
SAUDI Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to meet with US President Donald Trump and his top advisors establishes a new foundation for US-Saudi relations. The visit occurred in extraordinary settings with participants from the White House to the Pentagon. The US State Department was, however, nowhere to be seen.
The visit to Washington is occurring during a full court press for Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and the drivers to bring that vision, mainly next year’s Aramco IPO and the growth of the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), to fruition in a logical and timely manner. While King Salman is on a momentous trip to Asia focusing on energy, investment, counter-terrorism, and religion, and with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef coordinating with allies against a number of internal and external extremist and state threats, the Saudi defense minister is cementing with the Trump administration a robust binary relationship to not only counter Iran and extremism but to see both Trump’s America First and MBS’s Vision 2030 succeed.
The US and Saudi Arabia agreed that the new foundation with Riyadh could create up to one million American jobs, as well as millions more indirect American jobs, and an unspecified number of jobs in the Kingdom. The Trump administration and the Saudis voiced support for creating joint working groups on energy, industry, infrastructure, and technology, with the goal of generating $200 billion in new investments by the end of Trump’s term. 2020, of course, is the end date for the National Transformation Program (NTP) so Riyadh’s investments, in theory, will boost popularity for Trump’s economic plans.
To be sure, this new US-Saudi basis is notable. The Deputy Crown Prince said that the White House meetings were a “historical turning point in relations between both countries … which had passed through a period of divergence of views on many issues.” MBS of course was referring to the wreckage of the Obama Administration’s policies towards the Middle East. Now, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince argues, that the US and Saudi Arabia “restored issues to their right path” and signal a “change in relations” between Riyadh and Washington D.C. when it comes to “political, military, security and economicissues.”
Clearly, the Trump Administration and Saudi Arabia see that they need each other now more than ever.
To this point, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, when asked about Saudi sending troops to Syria, replied: “We are ready to do anything that will eradicate terrorism without limits.”
Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the Pentagon for a three-hour meeting between Saudi officials and a mix of Pentagon and Strategic Initiative Group (SIG) leadership was remarkable on a number of fronts. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ comment to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir regarding his “survivability” from an Iranian assassination plot set the tone for the Pentagon meeting.
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told his opposites across the table, including Senior Presidential Advisor Stephen Bannon and Jared Kuchner, thatthe Kingdom faces hostile activities as the Iranian regime supports extremists and terrorists in the region and around the world, and challenges posed by terrorist organizations.
Mohammed bin Salman asserted “That’s why we need to work and cooperate with our allies. On top of the list comes the United States, the leader of the world. Today we are very optimistic under the leadership of President Trump and we believe these challenges will be easy to tackle under the leadership of the president.” The Saudi Deputy Crown Prince made very clear to his audience the view from Riyadh: Iran and its proxies, combined with terrorism, threatens the very core of the Kingdom.
The presence of both Bannon and Kushner at the Pentagon meeting with Mohammed bin Salman deserves special attention. Both senior presidential advisors represent the Strategic Initiatives Group (SIG) within the White House. The SIG is generating Executive Orders (EOs) for President Trump to sign as well as working on grand strategic vision for “American First” but also how the United States will partner with Arab allies to push back Iran and destroy ISIS.
We do not know if other issues came up in the meeting such as Syria and Yemen safe zones or actual discussion on Saudi contributions to any future US-led force in the Levant. Nevertheless, for Bannon and Kushner to listen to MBS directly helps them to better understand where Saudi Arabia fits into Trump Administration’s plans and goals not only in the Middle East but also in terms of American economic nationalism and revival.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia’s support for Trump Administration’s Executive Orders is significant. Mohammed bin Salman supports Trump’s extreme vetting program calling it a “vital and urgent precaution” that Saudi Arabia does not see as discriminatory. The Deputy Crown Prince also vouched for the president himself, remarking that Trump “expressed his deep respect for the religion of Islam.” He called Trump “a true friend of Muslims” whose commitment to achieving the Muslim world’s interests is “unprecedented.” He also described negative portrayals of Trump’s posture toward Muslims as insulting.
Consequently, there is no doubt that Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) is likely to be dismantled as a hold-over from the Obama Administration and being too litigious. Pending US congressional action on the Muslim Brotherhood and IRGC terrorist designations may now accelerate.
Clearly, the Trump Administration and Saudi Arabia see that they need each other now more than ever. From Riyadh’s perspective, the Trump administration is the perfect strategic business partner. The two meetings illustrate that both sides succeeded in a “meeting of the minds” on strategic issues affecting both countries. There is much more binary cooperation in development between Washington and Riyadh on the way.
[Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Washington DC-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik]