When President Trump travels to Saudi Arabia for his first foreign visit, he will be leaving behind more than the upheavals of a chaotic White House: he will be shedding much of the anti-Saudi rhetoric from the campaign trail and downplaying his anti-Muslim sentiments, such as the facile equivalence of terrorism to Islam that resulted in the proposed travel ban. Instead, the President will likely operate within the established guidelines for managing the alliance and reaffirm “the strong partnership” between the two countries.
President Trump, however, will not abandon all of his critiques, such as obliging the Saudi government to burden a greater financial share of its national defense and security. The opportunity to champion a splashy example of his strike-a-better-deal, bottom-line driven diplomacy and the foreign policy applicability of “America First” is too difficult pass-up. The Saudis will be more than happy to play along. Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent address decoupling foreign policy and US values- accompanied by an arms windfall for fellow Gulf country Bahrain- has telegraphed to the Saudis that arms sales will return, with few if any conditions. Massive arms sales for the country have reportedly been in the works for months.
Besides, what the Saudi government will be seeking in exchange for paying a little extra cash for their security and the purchasing of additional arms is far more valuable: a redoubled commitment by the United States to see and understand the politics of the Middle East through a Saudi lens.
The Saudi vision is primarily rooted in the need to curtail and confront Iranian actions across the region, from Syria to Yemen and beyond. The Saudi Minister of Defense and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, much as he did at the White House in March, has telegraphed Riyadh’s own priority in this regard. In a widely-circulated interview, he noted that Saudi Arabia will not wait for the battle to come home but “work to have the battle in Iran rather than in Saudi Arabia.” Iran responded in kind with its own saber-rattling as well as an official letter to the United Nations referencing Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of terrorism.
In contrast to its portrayal of Iranian actions as omnipresent and “destabilizing,” Saudi Arabia will work to characterize its own interventionist actions in the Middle East as a “stabilizing” force, no matter any evidence to the contrary. It is this Saudi ability to convince the US to view the Middle East from their perspective — not their oil reserves or arms purchasing power — that is their most strategic asset.
One of the major topics of discussion of the Riyadh Summit, which will include the participation of actors from across the Arab and Muslim world, is combating extremism, terrorism, and violence. How deliberations unfold will be telling. If the majority of discussion is devoted to confronting ISIS in Iraq and Syria and Al Qaeda in Yemen as well as raising the importance of Gulf contributions to humanitarian efforts and the resettlement of refugees — it could serve a useful purpose in bringing Gulf countries into wider counter-terrorism cooperation. If however, references to Shia Muslims occur solely in terms of militarized external conflict in Yemen or Syria, foiled terrorist plots, or as part of a regional Iranian agenda, the event will primarily be about serving Saudi Arabia’s own security narrative and parochial interests.
Even so, one should be wary of terrorism strategies solely constructed around combating outside forces abroad and internal “others” at home. Efforts to approach the issue of terrorism in such a way make clear that certain responses can trigger an unending cycle of “us” versus “them” interventions, attacks, and counter-attacks. If the recently announced Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) is any indication, which excludes Iran, Iraq, and Syria who all have sizable Shia populations, then Saudi Arabia views multilateral efforts primarily as part of a Sunni-Shii battle and focused on opposing particular nation-states.
It seems unlikely that Saudi Arabia will feel any need to show the slightest recognition of the challenges of their own governing religious ideology to the country’s long-term economic and social sustainability or the export of extreme religious ideology. Instead Saudi Arabia may continue to peg its own internal instances of extremism and violence as primarily the work of external conspirators, outsiders, rogue elements, and Shia terrorists. Nor should one expect to hear of the Shia-disparaging rhetoric permeating speeches and textbooks that inspire terrorists across the world, including those who destroy mosques and places of worship from Saudi Arabia’s eastern province to Pakistan. The absence of treating either issue with seriousness will serve to limit the difficult discussions necessary to reduce the influence of violent extremist ideology.
Even though the Riyadh Summit is unlikely to run counter to the Saudi view and approach, and thus do little for US interests, Trump will find much in common with his interlocutors. Both exist within insular and insulated family-run operations that seek to control the media narrative and perceptions. Both identify others as the instigators of their problems. Even the gold-leaf opulence of the Saudi palaces will be a familiar style to Trump Tower. The risk of accepting the Saudi view — as easily as accepting the obligatory trays of tea and dates — is that the US will find itself limited in its ability to operate across a region with many more interests and perspectives than a simple story can tell.
Kevin L. Schwartz is a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress and was recently Distinguished Visiting Professor (Middle East Chair) at the US Naval Academy. His website is www.kevinschwartz.org