Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

President Trump Goes to Saudi Arabia

May 19, 2017

President Trump announced on May 4 that his first foreign trip would be to the centers of the three major world religions: Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican. The inclusion of the Saudi kingdom in this list indicates how seriously the president takes the crises gripping the Arab and Muslim worlds. But more importantly, his schedule during his visit shows he plans to break with the patterns of the Obama administration and, rather than trying to enforce Western policies and methods from above, work with the region’s countries and institutions in a collaborative fashion so that the US can once again play an effective and sustained role in the Middle East.

The president’s schedule will involve three summits: a bilateral summit with Saudi leaders; a summit with leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); and a general US/Arab Muslim Summit. These three gatherings show the different angles through which the president views US national security interests within the Muslim world. But they also prove that he believes that these strategic interests are best served by working through a Saudi partnership.
As mentioned, this is a stark – and smart - break with the Obama Doctrine in three important ways. First, the president is starting his journey into the complexities of the Middle East by going initially to Saudi Arabia. This indicates that his approach to the region’s many issues will be through a special understanding with the Kingdom. He seems to understand that by directly working with the Saudis and gaining their imprimatur he stands the greatest chance at garnering the support of most of the Arab and Muslim worlds in seeking viable, long-term fixes to the many difficult issues that beset, and emanate from, the region.
Second, the Trump administration has clearly decided to fully support the kingdom’s defensive capabilities. As was recently announced, a new $100 billion military equipment package is about to be agreed upon by both countries that will allow Saudi Arabia to increase its ability to project power and more tangibly realize its de facto leadership role in the Muslim world. Hopefully this new arrangement with the US will mean that the Saudis will begin addressing the fundamental structural problems with their military that have so far hampered their ability to decisively end the war in Yemen as well as put together a viable expeditionary force for Syria.
Finally, President Trump seems to be on the path of finally working with the Saudis to cooperatively iron out a coherent and sustainable strategic bloc that can fully respond to the two biggest problems in the region: Iran and ISIS/Al Qaeda. From starting proxy wars to funding terrorist cells to fomenting state destabilization, the Iranians are, as the US State Department has long recognized, the top state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Saudi Arabia, as the cradle of Islam, is the one nation with the religious and political legitimacy that can generate sufficient Arab and Muslim involvement to counter Iran, and Trump’s visit seems to indicate that he will throw US support behind the kingdom’s intentions of doing so.
On the issue of ISIS/Al Qaeda, the president has most certainly been made aware of the fact that the first objective of these terrorist groups is to bring down the Saudi monarchy so they can establish a caliphate and control Islam's two Holy Mosques at Mecca and Medina. Hence, working with their prime enemy – Saudi Arabia – makes strategic sense for the US. In addition, the kingdom brings Islamic religious authority to the fight against terror that is, after all, waged in the name of a spurious Muslim purity and can only be fully defeated with the support of the Ummah, the wider Muslim community.
As promising as this strategy is for addressing the massive problems of Iran and ISIS/Al Qaeda, it gives hope for something potentially even more groundbreaking. Because the president seems ready to listen to the Saudis, the GCC states, and the Arab Muslim world in general; because he is showing signs of wanting to perceive the region’s problems through the lens of those who are actually living them; and because he seems to be willing to dedicate the kind of time and materiel it will take to adequately respond to those problems, progress may be possible on the one issue that has been tearing the region apart longer than any other: the Arab-Israeli conflict. If President Trump can re-energize the special relationship by supporting the Saudi position, the Muslim world will surely be willing to come to the table and hash out a workable solution with the Israelis, perhaps along the lines of the Arab Peace Plan, which the Saudis created and have long advocated for.
While Saudi Arabia is by no means a perfect nation, it is ultimately the most influential country in both the Middle East and in the broader Muslim world. Thus, the only path forward in the search for resolutions to the problems that afflict them both is to collaborate with the Kingdom. President Trump’s visit is encouraging in this regard and presents a welcome shift from the often counter-productive actions of the Obama Administration.

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For Academic Citation:President Trump Goes to Saudi Arabia .” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, May 19, 2017.