Trump Navigates the Middle East

US President Donald J. Trump signaled through his meeting with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in Washington on May 15 his administration’s commitment to working closely with the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to counter Iran’s expanding influence in the Arab world and fight al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

On May 19, Trump travels to Saudi Arabia where he will meet King Salman and up to twenty heads of state of Muslim-majority countries. MbZ’s visit to Washington has, in part, helped Trump prepare for his engagements in Saudi Arabia.

Trump will deliver a speech on confronting religious extremism and embracing a new vision of Islam. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and thirty-nine other Muslim countries are members of the Riyadh-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), unveiled by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in December 2015. The alliance’s official purpose is to crush Sunni extremists such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Yet with the Middle East’s two largest Shi’ite-majority countries (Iran and Iraq) excluded from the Saudi-led organization, the IMAFT’s sectarian and anti-Iranian colors are highly visible.

The UAE, which aligns closely with Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and shares Riyadh’s view of Iran as a predatory state, is an important member of IMAFT. The Arab Gulf country has unique standing in the future of the IMAFT given its experience in waging direct military strikes against Salafist jihadist forces in Libya, Syria, and most impressively Yemen.

At the same time, since 1979 Abu Dhabi has been a critical partner in the United States’ efforts to counter Iran’s political agenda throughout the Middle East. In February, the White House was in discussions with the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia about establishing a military alliance that shares intelligence with Israel to stand stronger against Tehran.

As one of the United States’ closest Arab/Muslim allies, the UAE seeks to be a bridge between Washington and other Sunni Arab states. For Abu Dhabi, securing Washington’s support for IMAFT is critical as the UAE hopes to see an ongoing period of unrest in the Middle East conclude with a restoration of stability. For Trump, scoring victories over global terrorist organizations is at the top of his foreign policy agenda. Partners like the UAE, which has strong and rising military capabilities and staunchly opposes Islamist extremism, have pivotal roles to play in terms of burden sharing on a host of regional security crises from al Qaeda and ISIS to an ascendant Iran and piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

When Trump and MbZ addressed these issues in the White House, both leaders were building on their first telephone call in January after Trump became president in which they discussed the struggle against violent extremists and terrorists as well as the two countries’ commitment to resolving the Middle East’s raging conflicts.

Citing human rights issues and civilian casualties in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, the Obama administration restricted US weapons sales to the UAE’s close allies—Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. To Abu Dhabi and other GCC capitals’ relief, Trump has signaled that he will not allow such factors to restrict US weapons sales to Washington’s traditional allies in the tumultuous Middle East. Since Trump entered the Oval Office, the United States has stepped up its support for the UAE in the fight against Yemen’s local al Qaeda branch.

In Libya, Washington supports the UN-brokered and internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), whose forces have been fighting in a civil war since 2014 against Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which backs the GNA’s rival government based in Tobruk. Haftar receives support from the UAE, alongside Egypt, France, Jordan, and Russia. Because the GNA is backed by numerous Islamist militias, and in light of Trump’s expressed desire to combat radical Islamists, Libyan officials in Tobruk have expressed optimism about the prospects of Trump cutting off US support for the GNA and backing the government in Tobruk. On May 2, the UAE hosted a meeting between Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the GNA, and Haftar, which the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi said “brings optimism towards guaranteeing [Libya] a political solution.” Now, in the wake of MbZ’s meeting with Trump, Abu Dhabi is determined to position itself as a vital interlocutor for Washington on the Libya file.

During his visit, MbZ signed an updated Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) between the United States and the UAE. The accord, first signed in 1994, will now possibly permit the United States to deploy more troops and equipment to the Emirates to “reflect the broad range of military-to-military cooperation that the UAE and US enjoy today,” according to the Pentagon. For years, Abu Dhabi and Washington have maintained a close security partnership. The UAE cooperates with the United States and other Western powers to counter chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear risks. In return, these powers supply the UAE with optronic systems for armored vehicles.

During MbZ’s talks in Washington, there was discussion about restarting negotiations on the fifth-generation F-35 jet fighter. The updated US-UAE DCA aligned with the US State Department giving the green light to a $2 billion Patriot missile defense systems deal and support services sale to Abu Dhabi, underscoring how the two countries see a mutually beneficial relationship with the Arab Gulf country strengthening its military means while generating foreign exchange and new jobs for the United States.

MbZ’s visit to Washington was significant for the US-UAE relationship, especially given the Trump administration’s “transactional” foreign policy. Abu Dhabi is helping the Trump administration navigate the choppy waters of the Middle East; that first step now begins in Riyadh.

Giorgio Cafiero is the chief executive officer of Gulf State Analytics ( @GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.  

Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics. You can follow him on Twitter @TKarasik.

Image: US President Donald J. Trump met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in Washington on May 15. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)