A Friendship Blooms in the Desert

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images
President Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud stop for coffee with First Lady Melania Trump, in the terminal of King Khalid International Airport.

Even amongst the oil embargo in 1973, the September 11, 2001 attacks, and some recent disagreements over regional affairs, the United States’ alliance with Saudi Arabia has proved fairly durable. President Trump’s visit to the Saudi Kingdom this past weekend has promoted even closer ties between the two countries.  

For much of the past several decades, U.S. foreign policy regarding Saudi Arabia has been based around adequately protecting them, and by extension their oil. Consequently, the U.S. has sought to create a strong Saudi Army. Their military relations peaked during the first Gulf War in 1991, but became more complicated in 2001 due to Saudi citizens participation in, and then subsequent Saudi government reaction to 9/11. The United States subsequently ended their active military support for Saudi Arabia in 2003, but the Saudi kingdom managed to improve their intelligence and cooperation with the U.S. for counterterrorism projects, reestablishing trust. Under Obama, Saudi Arabia again began purchasing weapons from the United States. However, relations soured again after the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which strengthened Iran’s ability—as a result of lifted sanctions leading to an increase in capital—to counter Saudi Arabia’s influence. In a reassurance to the Saudis, the most recent U.S.–Saudi Arabia arms deal, announced this past weekend during President Trump’s visit to the country, supplies nearly $110 billion in armaments immediately and $350 billion over the next ten years.

Trump has made it clear that he wants to strengthen the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia. He has focused on their shared desires of combating Islamist extremists, and particularly, stopping the growth of the Islamic state (ISIS). As Trump said in his speech to the Muslim world last Saturday:

“We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship, instead, we are here to offer partnership—based on shared interests and values—to pursue a better future for us all.”

Nevertheless, Trump realizes he will have to engage other Arab Nations in the fight against ISIS. Accordingly, Trump is planning on creating an Arab NATO, a military coalition of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. As a result of Saudi Arabia’s increasing military strength, they are expected to be the leader of the coalition. In the past, the United States would most likely not have wanted Arab nations to form such an influential organization. Particularly, the United States would not have liked countries, who do not prioritize civil liberties, to be the ones combating terrorism. However, the new United States administration has dismissed those concerns, instead prioritizing defeating ISIS, which has led Trump to reach out to Saudi Arabia and other Arab kingdoms.

Saudi Arabia has reciprocated U.S. support by injecting funds into programs to further President Trump’s economic agenda. This past weekend, Saudi Arabia pledged $20 billion towards The Blackstone Group’s (whose leader Stephen Schwarzman, heads the President’s Business Advisory Council) infrastructure fund. Trump campaigned on rebuilding America’s infrastructure, and the Saudis hope this investment is representative of the benefits of the United States treating Saudi Arabia as an ally. 

Both President Trump and Saudi leadership understand that a strong U.S.–Saudi relationship advances both nations interests in the region; as the United States will no longer have the onus of fighting terrorism, while Saudi Arabia will have a more control over their regional affairs.