During US President Donald J. Trump’s upcoming trip to Riyadh, Gulf leaders will seek to portray themselves as capable partners for the United States in countering common threats, namely violent extremism and Iranian aggression, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.
Throughout the summit, leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries will “want to make it clear that they have become more capable partners,” said Bilal Y. Saab, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He said they will try to communicate to Trump: “Rely on us more. Trust us more. We are happy to devote sufficient resources to common fights including counter-terrorism and countering Iran.”
“I think they will push that message more aggressively now, because this is what Trump wants to hear,” Saab added. Regarded as a “transactional” president and self-proclaimed dealmaker, Trump emphasized throughout his campaign that the fight against terrorism would top his foreign policy agenda. “He said during the campaign that he is looking for partners who are more willing to contribute, share the burden, and spend more money on defense,” said Saab, adding that US partners in the Gulf will seek to meet this need.
Trump will depart for Riyadh on May 19. According to Saab, the trip, though highly anticipated by the GCC countries, does not necessarily indicate a reset in US-Gulf relations, which were strained during the administration of former US President Barack Obama. “I think it’s premature to talk about a reset,” said Saab. “Call me a skeptic, but I would love to wait and see what the summit accomplishes…then maybe we can start talking about real policy changes.”
In terms of concrete deliverables emerging from the summit, “it’s already been signaled that there’s going to be a major arms sale,” said Saab. On the trip, Trump is expected to announce a $100 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Further, the White House will pursue a $5 billion sale of nineteen F-16 aircraft to Bahrain. Both deals are controversial due to human rights concerns, namely civilian deaths in Yemen as a result of conflict with the two countries poised to receive more arms from Washington. Obama had halted arms sales to these countries citing growing civilian casualties in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
Trump will also bring with him a proposal for an Arab NATO alliance. However, Saab said, “I don’t expect much in the immediate term from an Arab NATO force beyond a conceptual proposal and signaling that we would be behind it.”
Ultimately, “the number one threat is Iran,” said Saab. “What [Gulf leaders] really want to hear is a more concerted effort to assist them in countering Iran unconventionally.” Thus far, Trump’s rhetoric on Iran has been aggressive, but assuaging the concerns of allies will take concrete action.
Saab said that while Obama made important gains toward improving the US-Gulf security relationship at two summits at Camp David and Riyadh, any progress was undermined by a fundamental lack of trust, due in no small part to Obama’s negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran and lack of prior consultation with his Gulf partners on an issue so fundamental to their national security.
“If trust can be restored under Trump, that would remove a major obstacle to achieving all those things that were agreed upon,” said Saab. Upon his return from the Gulf, Trump must “start implementing” the deliverables agreed upon, he said, adding: “Words are great, but actions speak much louder”
Bilal Y. Saab joined the New Atlanticist’s Rachel Ansley. Here are excerpts from our interview.
Q: Does Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia mark a reset in the United States’ relationship with the kingdom? What changes do you expect in the relationship?
Saab: It’s premature to talk about a reset. We’ve heard a lot of promising rhetoric from Trump, and it’s been music to the ears of the United States’ Gulf partners, but to label this as a reset or a dramatic shift in policy would be imprudent. I think the [Gulf leaders] are smart enough and realistic enough to realize that. They’re just excited about the political transition in Washington because they were so burned out by the eight years of the Obama White House. For them, any change would have been welcome. I wouldn’t call it a reset. Call me a skeptic, but I would love to wait and see what the summit accomplishes, and then after that if I see concrete changes, then maybe we can start talking about real policy changes.
Q: Aside from Iran, what will be the focal points of the summit?
Saab: [Gulf leaders] want to make it clear that they have become more capable partners. They’re not asking the United States to do everything for them or to do the heavy lifting. All they’re looking for is a real partnership. This is going to be the key message that they will be interested in delivering here in Washington, that we’re actually dealing with more capable partners. “Rely on us more. Trust us more. We are happy to devote sufficient resources to common fights including counter-terrorism and countering Iran.” That’s what has changed over the past few years, and it’s been a process. I think that they will push that message more aggressively now, because this is what Trump wants to hear. He said during the campaign that he is looking for partners who are more willing to contribute, share the burden, and spend more money on defense. They’re going to hit on all those issues; check the box on all of them. The more they can provide Trump with immediate wins, the happier he is going to be.
Q: What are your thoughts on President Trump’s plans for an “Arab NATO”? Is such a grouping aimed against Iran?
Saab: Absolutely yes. This is the biggest priority for Gulf leaders. As much as they want to hide it, let’s not kid ourselves. The number one threat is Iran.
In terms of President Trump’s plan for an Arab NATO, it is an Arab NATO at the end of the day, which means the ball is in their court. The United States can push politically, we can provide all sorts of military assistance, but at the end of the day it is going to be them who have to lead. This is a long overdue idea with a ton of strategic merit.
Q: What is the right approach to improving the US-Gulf relationship, especially in light of the Iranian challenge in the region?
Saab: Let’s commit to the key deliverables from the Camp David and Riyadh summits that Obama launched, and give him credit for doing that over the past two years. At those meetings, they agreed to some very important items to upgrade the security relationship. If they were to commit to implementing those, that in itself would make a huge difference.
Q: What, if any, deliverables do you expect at the end of this summit?
Saab: It’s already been signaled that there’s going to be a major arms sale, and I don’t expect much in the immediate term from an Arab NATO force beyond a conceptual proposal and signaling that we would be behind it. I would suspect also that the Saudis on an economic front would sign a bunch of deals that would promote the trade relationship between the United States and the Kingdom, but that is on a bilateral basis. These would give Trump sufficient ammunition to come back home and talk to his constituency and tell them: “I promised I was going to get deals that would boost the American economy and that’s exactly what I did.”
Q: Former President Obama, in an attempt to assuage Gulf concerns about the Iran nuclear deal, initiated engagement with the GCC that involved summits at Camp David and in Riyadh. Why was little headway made on this track?
Saab: The number one issue was the mistrust. Nothing else is more important than that. At the end of the day, it really was that the Gulf states vastly distrusted Obama, and the feeling was mutual. All of that happened in the background of an Iran nuclear deal that was massively unpopular. This is what caused the mistrust, the fact that Obama signed a nuclear deal with their number one rival without him even consulting with them on the issue. If trust can be restored under Trump, that would remove a major obstacle to achieving all those things that were agreed upon.
Q: How could Trump go about restoring this trust?
Saab: I don’t think they’re reckless enough to tell him to follow up on his pledge to destroy the deal or discontinue it. What they really want to hear is a more concerted effort to assist them in countering Iran unconventionally. If that can go hand in hand with strict monitoring and enforcement of the nuclear deal, that’s what they’re looking for. So far [Trump] has said the right things; the rhetoric has been quite promising. That’s a good start, but you have to follow up and see what kind of policy changes this will lead to.
Q: What should Trump’s first steps after the trip look like?
Saab: I think his immediate priority should be to assemble the [Middle East] team. There’s still a lot of vacancies at [the US Department of] State and at the Pentagon. Then, divide the labor and decide what is the best framework to start implementing the key deliverables. Start implementing, because this is what the Gulf states are looking for right now. Words are great, but actions speak much louder.
Also, launch a new national intelligence review of the Iranian threat. If they already have started that, publish it as quickly as possible. That would constitute important signaling, meant to reassure our regional partners on vital matters of security.
Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.