FOR the US and its Western partners, the Middle East has been one of the most important regions of the world since the end of World War II. The last seven decades of the geo-politics in Middle East have witnessed increased US involvement in the region, including economic dealings, wars, and covert operations. The cold war era witnessed the US support for Saudi Arabia and Iran, both financial and diplomatic, for regional stability under the “Nixon Doctrine” for containing the former Soviet Union. The US traditionally considered both Iran and Saudi Arabia important for managing the Middle East region but the post-revolution Iran scenario changed the US perspective having tilted towards Saudi Arabia. The post-cold war era marked the US policy towards Middle East with significant increase in direct military involvement in the shape of first Iraq war in 1990 and then in 2003 invasion of the country. Now, the US is militarily engaged in its fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.
In retrospection, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had further increased the importance of the region for the US, but the former President Obama did upset Saudi Arabia and to some extent Israel, the two most important countries for the US always. The main reason, out of many, was Iran factor as the US concluded a nuclear deal with Iran. Under Trump, Saudis are hoping that it could be a potential era of restoration of relations. “It’s the beginning of a turning point in the relationship between the United States and the Arab and Islamic world,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Riyadh. In post-Obama era, the US approach towards Middle East would be driven by region’s two important states, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Israel, which may not be liked by Iran. President Trump had already termed the Iranian nuclear deal as “the worst deal ever negotiated” by the US during his election campaign. He also held Hilary Clinton, along with Obama; responsible for the mess created in Middle East in the form of IS creation.
Now, with him in the Oval office, he is poised to mend ways between Saudi Arabia and the US. His maiden visit to Saudi Arabia, being the first country of Muslim world, reflected this approach. Here, it is important to understand that why Trump preferred Saudi Arabia, as his first international visit after taking over as the President, over his NATO or Asia-Pacific allies. The answer is simple and that is “positive messaging” to Muslim world, which somehow or the other was not happy with the US policies in the post-9/11 era. According to Aljazeera, “Saudi Arabia backs Trump’s efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, which may again give “positive signals” in the Muslim world. Obviously, Saudi Arabia yields immense influence and good will among the majority of the Muslim world. Until now, American Presidents had traditionally not endorsed the Saudi culture and system of government, but Trump’s sword dance has endorsed the Saudi culture and the system, which is a good sign for the interests of the region. The two countries of the utmost importance in war on terror seem in synch.
It is noteworthy to mention here that for the “Republican Party”, the Middle East region has always been dearer. Trump knows this fact very well. Before being the President, Trump as a businessman had many deals in Saudi Arabia and Israel. So, one could say that the US-Saudi Arabia relations are poised for better understanding of each other. The US clearly understands the importance of Saudi Arabia as being considered the most influential state owing to the two holiest sites of Islam in the country. There are other factors too, i.e. Russia’s role being in line with Iran in Syria, which makes the US realize in realigning its policies, keeping in view the existing dynamics of the region lately. Though the visit by President Trump, as reported, focused on defence and commercial agreements with Saudi Arabia but the IS factor could not be ignored.
The IS factor today stands the single most driving factor in US-Saudi relationship, which would continue to dominate their bilateral dealings in the future. The US$ 110 defence deal between the two would have impacts on their bilateral dealings in the future. Both the states stand against the IS, which makes absolute sense as Saudi Arabia considers the IS threat “real” and the US support “timely”. Overall, President Trump’s first visit to Saudi Arabia has reinforced its primacy in Middle East, a region marred by many problems, ranging from political upheavals to terrorism.
— The writer is Research Fellow at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.