President Donald Trump’s upcoming Middle East tour, his first international trip since assuming office in January, will take him to the heart of the three monotheistic faiths, beginning in Saudi Arabia, travelling to Israel and finishing at the Vatican.
The symbolism of the tour is manifold. Perhaps most importantly though, it is an insight into Trump's international priorities. While much of Obama’s foreign policy thinking was focused on Asia, with a goal of containing a rising China, Trump’s first major sojourn abroad may suggest a prioritisation of the Middle East.
The choice and hierarchy of locations is also telling. The fact that Trump has selected both the Saudi kingdom and the Jewish state in the same trip has raised more than a few eyebrows. To maintain a sense of diplomatic neutrality, US presidents have typically tried to avoid contiguous visits to Israel while touring Arab states. In line with previous behaviour, his itinerary suggests Trump has little regard for such delicate nuances.
Resetting the status quo
Beginning the tour in the Saudi Kingdom is another indicator of a break with the priorities of the previous administration, which had sought to move away from some traditional ties to Saudi Arabia and to begin to foster a more even balance between Riyadh and Tehran. Obama also showed some willingness to criticise the Saudis for cultivating sectarian hatred and disregarding basic human rights, although this never translated into anything beyond rhetoric.
Such moves caused no small amount of consternation in elite Saudi circles. Washington’s seeming pivot was viewed as a betrayal of a longstanding relationship between the two states that has been more-or-less consistent since 1979. This caused many Saudis to come to view Obama as a serious liability to the Kingdom’s security. This was in spite of large-scale US support for continuing Saudi military expansion and modernisation during Obama’s tenure.
While the Obama Administration sought some degree of harmonisation of relations between the Gulf region’s major players, the Trump White House clearly views the Iranian regime with hostility and wishes to cultivate regional solidarity against what it views as a dangerous and revisionist state.
Gaudy displays of opulence
Saudi elation towards Trump’s ascendency is reflected in plans for the President’s visit, which looks certain to be a stark contrast to Obama’s final trip to the Kingdom in 2016 when he was famously snubbed by the nascent king Salman in a decidedly low-key affair and greeted at Riyadh airport by a minor official.
Contrast this with the signals from the Saudi palace that it intends to hold a truly opulent welcome for Trump, up to 20 heads of state will be present and there will undoubtedly be considerable pomp and ceremony. Such a gesture is likely to tickle the former property mogul’s appreciation for the ostentatious and gold plated.
Security in the Gulf
The grand soirée won't be just for show. It will be part of carefully calibrated efforts to further Riyadh’s ambition to regalvanise its close security relationship and sully the US-Iranian détente. Trump seems more than happy to accommodate this ambition, with the White House unveiling a plan to construct an ‘Arab NATO’ that will bring together a coalition of Sunni states to combat terrorism and counterbalance a rising Iran. Given Saudi clout in both the Gulf Co-operation Council and the wider Arab world, it is likely that Riyadh would happily find itself as a central and dominant figure in such a formal alliance, a status that would place it on happier footing in its current geopolitical competition with its Persian rival.
Riyadh will also seek to foster greater US assistance for its foray into Yemen against Houthi rebel forces. In 2015, Saudi strategists had hoped technical superiority would grant them a quick victory against the insurgents when they launched an unprecedented invasion of the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country at the head of a GCC coalition.
Some commentators warned such sentiment was fanciful, given the Houthi’s historical resilience as mountain fighters, particularly on their home turf in the rugged terrain of Yemen’s north. Despite initial successes by Saudi and GCC forces, alongside a motley crew of South American and Australian mercenaries, the coalition found itself unable to dislodge Houthi forces from their mountainous homeland. Two years on, the war is now largely a quagmire, with an ever-growing humanitarian crisis brought about by excesses on both sides.
Until now, US activity in Yemen has largely focused on eliminating elements of al Qaeda. Now, given Trump’s interest in the region, the Saudis may be hoping to draw US resources and troops directly into their fight with the Houthis. Such a shift could tip the balance in the coalition’s favour and break the stalemate. Of course, given Washington's inability to find a clear resolution in Afghanistan – a country with similar geographical and political quandaries to Yemen – accommodation of such a request is far from a given.
In the unprecedented chaos that is the Trump presidency, the apparent swing back towards Saudi Arabia seems abnormally normal. The Saudis have long been natural – some would say ideal – allies for the US in the region. The country remains largely status-quo oriented in its objectives, turns a blind eye to the special US-Israel relationship, provides an invaluable and stabilising resource to the global economy and covers its own defence needs (unlike Israel or Egypt, the Saudis pay for all the arms and training they receive from Washington). In the transactional view that seems to underpin Trump’s thinking, such traits are desirable and make the Saudis a natural go-to when considering wider challenges in the Middle East.
Given the scandal-wracked nature and general inefficacy of the Trump Administration, the long-term sustainability and indeed the impact of such a position remains questionable. For now, however, the Saudis appear to be trying to leverage as much advantage as possible while the opportunity presents itself.