In a clear sign of the strength of ties between their two countries, President Donald Trump met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for the third time in a year, and for the second time in the White House. The Saudi prince looked sharp and on point, while the US president was all over the place, unable to see US-Saudi relations outside bilateral trade numbers, and mischaracterizing history in such a way that prompted the crown prince to correct him. Speaking to reporters, Trump covered three points. He presented the dollar figure with which Saudi Arabia has so far bought US arms, then like a salesman, addressed the crown prince by saying “that’s peanuts for you,” and adding, “you should have increased it.” Trump made strategic military ties between the two countries sound like nut sales.
Trump reiterated that America and its allies have liberated “almost 100 percent of ISIS territory,” and that Saudi Arabia has helped dry up sources of terror-funding. The US president also said that America and Saudi Arabia “have become friends over a fairly short period of time,” prompting Prince Mohammad to correct him by pointing out that Saudi-US ties go back 80 years.
The impression that is cemented is that now, it is the nations of the Arabian Gulf that set the tone and direction of their relationship with the US.
Behind closed doors, the two leaders discussed Iran “extensively,” according to White House sources. Trump has vowed to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. While US and European diplomats have been huddling for weeks in a bid to introduce amendments that would “fix” the deal, the Trump administration seems pessimistic, with little hope that anything will come out of these talks. Without amendments, America will withdraw from the deal, forcing it to collapse at the UN Security Council.
Ensuring that Iran never acquires the ability to race toward a nuclear weapon is good news for Riyadh, but Saudi Arabia faces more pressing and imminent threats from Tehran. Iran has been working hard to undermine the sovereignty of governments throughout the region, and has given its militias the upper hand inside Arab capitals, in Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa.
White House sources say that the Saudis “were pleased” to hear Trump’s plan to “deal with Iran.” So far, Trump looks to be the most determined US president to confront Tehran’s ambitions of regional expansion. The date May 10 would be the deadline for Trump to announce his next step, since that would be the day he is required to either re-certify his waiving of sanctions on Tehran, or withdraw from the deal.
And while he seems to be moving on the Iran front, Trump’s past plans seem to be fizzling away.
Unlike in their two previous meetings, in Washington in March and in Riyadh in May, much has changed in the White House. Propagators of hawkish anti-Muslim rhetoric, Steven Bannon and his associate Sebastian Gorka, have been shown the door. Since then, Trump has rarely — if ever — mentioned his “less conventional” plans on how to deal with Islamist terrorism.
Trump’s push toward Arab-Israeli peace also seems to have cooled down. His peace envoy, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, has lost his temporary access to classified material inside the White House. Outside Washington, and after his many visits to the region, Kushner seems to have finally realized that the elusive Arab-Israeli peace deal is much more complicated than the trickiest real estate transaction in Manhattan.
Finally, unlike last March and in May, the war on ISIS has neared completion, and regional powers — first and foremost Gulf countries — have been leading the post-ISIS era by coming to the aid of Iraq, financially and diplomatically.
It seems that Riyadh and its allies have correctly calculated that a military victory is not the time to disengage from Iraq, like how former Barack Obama left after defeating Al Qaeda there. Gulf capitals have realized that the hard work begins the minute war ends. Shattered communities need support and their towns require reconstruction. Leaving Iraq to its fate only deepens Iraqi despair and opens the door for radicalism, whether from ISIS or from Iran.
Hence, as America scales down its presence in Iraq, Gulf countries have stepped up to lead this war-torn country — and the region at large — toward a more prosperous and stable future.
In their meeting in the Oval Office, Trump seemed transactional, counting the dollars and the pennies America was making off arms deal with Riyadh, while Prince Mohammad came across as a strategic leader with a vision, whether in commenting on the 80-year old Saudi-American alliance or in highlighting the strength of his country’s ties with the US, going forward. The most important impression imparted from this particular meeting might well be that Arab nations are beginning to determine the relationship they want from America, and less the other way around.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.
AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN