Dr. John Duke Anthony
AS a candidate for the Oval Office, Donald Trump was not shy about criticizing Saudi Arabia. Contexts change, though, and as President his administration has refrained from unjustified, unnecessary, and provocative statements in this regard.
Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and home to the faith’s two holiest places, is a country that is vital to America’s national interests and strategic concerns. It has been one of the foremost US national security partners for the past eight decades – longer than any other developing nation.
If America is to be “great again,” it can and must be greater in very particular ways. One of which is to be far greater than derogatory and antagonistic rhetoric toward a country central to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who represent nearly a quarter of humanity.
By selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on his historic visit, the first official one to any foreign country, President Trump has been prudent to seize an opportunity to turn a new and more positive page towards Arabs and Muslims in the region and beyond. The President’s visit has a chance to begin healing wounds that have been inflicted on Muslims the world over.
A Historic Visit: Selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on this historic visit – when the American President could easily and without controversy have selected any one among numerous other countries – sends a strong message to the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.
The announcement of his visit to the country has already had a powerfully uplifting and relevant symbolic effect. Its impact has been greatest on the Kingdom and its neighbors.
Peoples of this region include large numbers that have longed for this kind of American leadership for quite some time. The visit speaks volumes as to how vital these countries are to the United States. It underscores their critical importance to America’s friends, allies, and the rest of the world.
Make no mistake about it: of the planet’s 212 countries and the 193 members of the United Nations, all but a few would want to host the president of the most economically, financially, scientifically, technologically, educationally, and militarily powerful nation.
What further distinguishes the President’s visit to Riyadh is its multiple benefits. Indeed, he is scheduled to meet not only with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, but also the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). (Established in 1981, the GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.)
Peoples of this region include large numbers that have longed for this kind of American leadership for quite some time.
Americans have long been mistakenly accustomed to thinking that the largest number of US armed forces abroad are in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. For some time, however, this has no longer been true – they are stationed in the GCC. Thus, the additional significance of the visit to the Kingdom’s capital, which is also the GCC’s headquarters. Mr. Trump’s meetings with these influential additional leaders in a matter of days ought not to be lost on anyone. Coming at this time, the President’s visit sends a strong message of American engagement, projection, and commitment to the internationally concerted, US-led action against violent extremism.
Preparations and Goals The visit conveys a much welcomed determination for the United States to join with GCC and other Arab and Islamic country efforts to push back against Iran’s interference in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
In fact, GCC foreign ministers recently met in Riyadh to discuss the visit. They convened with a view to placing their countries’ relations with the United States on a firmer foundation than what they came to be in the last year of the Obama administration. A public statement released by GCC Secretary General Dr. Abdul Latif bin Rashid Al Zayani noted that the foreign ministers would “explore the on-going preparations for the consultative meeting of the GCC leaders, scheduled for Riyadh, in addition to the US-GCC Summit and Arab-Islamic-US Summit to be held in Riyadh on Sunday during the upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump to the Kingdom.” H.E. Dr. Al Zayani added that the GCC’s foreign ministers would also discuss the latest regional and international developments, together with how best to enhance their, America’s, and other countries’ global efforts against radical militancy.
The overall goal of the upcoming meetings in Riyadh will be to further advance the special strategic partnership between the United States and the Kingdom. Both sides acknowledge that specific areas in need of heightened ties include defense and security as well as trade, investment, and economic cooperation.
A Saudi Arabian goal of immense importance is to obtain an official American endorsement as well as practical support for “Vision 2030,” the country’s massive economic transformation plan.
In addition, the President will meet on Sunday with GCC leaders and the representatives of 55 Muslim majority countries. For the significance of such an event one need look no further than to recognize that no meeting quite like this one has occurred before.
On one hand, an objective for this part of the visit will be to seek these nations’ assistance against the threats posed by radical extremists and Iranian interference. On the other, it will be to help bring an end to the bloodshed currently occurring in five of the Arab world’s 22 countries.
A New Regional Security Architecture? Little known to many is that Saudi Arabia bears one of the highest defense burdens in the world. The International Institute of Strategic Studies noted that the Kingdom’s military spending accounted for 12.7% of its GDP in 2015 and 8.9% in 2016, ranking it fourth behind the United States, China, and Russia. Even so, and despite the global decrease in the price of oil, Riyadh remains one of the largest consumers of American Foreign Military Sales (FMS).
Furthering this side of the relationship, President Trump is expected to arrive with an additional $100 billion in FMS packages that include ships, missile defense, and maritime security systems.
The significance of the President achieving a commercial deal of this size would not be lost on defense strategists and analysts. It would represent a significant reversal of the White House’s stance near the end of the Obama administration.
The visit conveys a much welcomed determination for the United States to join with GCC and other Arab and Islamic country efforts to push back against Iran’s interference in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. What other meaning should one read into this component of the President’s visit? For starters, Mr. Trump’s time in Riyadh would signal US administration agreement that Saudi Arabia is critical to countering Iran’s efforts to undermine regimes friendly to the United States. Straightening the military relationship between Washington and Riyadh would further align American and coalition countries in their joint quest to defeat ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other violent extremist groups.
[Dr. John Duke Anthony is the Founding President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. On June 22, 2000, on his first official state visit to the United States, H.M. King Muhammad VI of Morocco knighted Dr. Anthony, bestowing upon him Morocco’s highest award for excellence. Dr. Anthony currently serves on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy and its Subcommittee on Sanctions (with special reference to Iran). He is the only American to have been invited to each of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Ministerial and Heads of State Summits since the GCC’s inception in 1981]