As Secretary of Defense Mark Esper tours the Middle East amid growing tension between Tehran and Washington, the relationship between President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, continues to move from strength to strength—not only based on regional security needs, but on Saudi Arabia’s new vision for its own societal, economic, and political development.
Relations between the longtime allies have greatly improved since Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 by the Obama administration and world powers. But while the deal was a major blow for U.S.-Saudi relations, it was not the first.
Deterioration of US-Saudi Relations
The United States and Saudi Arabia’s relationship was built on economic ties and security partnerships. According to the Brookings Institute, the 1980s and 1990s was a period of “unprecedented cooperation” between the United States and Saudi Arabia, but after that, the relationship began to deteriorate.
“It began to go sour in 2000 when President Bill Clinton failed to get both a Syrian-Israeli peace at the Shepherdstown peace conference and a Palestinian-Israel peace at Camp David,” according to a 2016 report by Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project.
The relationship further deteriorated during President George W. Bush’s time, and “9/11 made it all worse.” Things declined further during Obama’s time with various disagreements over political equations in the Middle East.
King Salman “snubbed Obama once, waged war in Yemen, executed dozens of accused terrorists, and built a broad 34-nation Islamic military alliance against Iran,” Riedel added.
According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), during Obama’s time, the two nations differed on core issues.
“Saudi Arabia was dismayed by the lack of U.S. support for ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and that it was not included in initial negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, which were conducted in secret in Oman in 2013. Saudi leadership also chafed at President Obama’s vision that the kingdom ‘share the neighborhood’ with Iran,'” said the CFR.
Keeping Iran in Check
Manjari Singh, an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies and former fellow at the Middle East Institute in New Delhi, told The Epoch Times that the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal greatly repaired trust between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
“Saudi Arabia has long been raising its voice against Iran for sponsoring and financing terrorism in the region in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq etc. as well as for using the lifting of sanctions since 2015 for its ballistic missile development, which the Kingdom felt was a threat for the entire region,” said Singh. “The withdrawal [from the deal] in that context brought much respite and assured the Kingdom that its voice was being heard.”
Joseph A. Kéchichian, Senior Fellow at King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, told The Epoch Times that despite concerns expressed by opponents about a cozy relationship growing between Trump and bin Salman, the importance the president places on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is not a new thing.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been important to all American presidents for over 80 years, and the Trump Administration is no exception, even if media outlets perceive nonexistent conspiracies between Trump and Riyadh,” he said.
“In reality, the Kingdom perceives Iran as an existential threat, and this American president shares that view,” he added.
In July, Trump bypassed Congress to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. The administration released a statement opposing the joint resolution passed by Congress that disapproved the issuance of an export license for the proposed transfer of defense articles, defense services, and related technical data.
“The transfer of Paveway precision-guided capability to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia directly supports the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States,” the statement reads. “It does so by improving the security of a friendly country that continues to be an important force for political and economic stability in the Middle East.”
The administration said the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia is important to defend the United States and its allies’ interests from Iran and its proxies in the region.
Singh said that in addition to being of financial benefit to the United States, the arms deal also helped build trust between the two countries and helped to check the growing influence of Iran.
Kéchichian, however, said there are no surprises in the arms deal. “Arms sales are always tricky questions, but Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars in Washington over the years. Congress was aware of these sales and approved them.
“Periodically, and under Israeli pressure, Congress blocked certain purchases by the Kingdom, but the sales eventually went through. This is a business relationship, and there are alternative sources that can be tapped, so everyone is aware of what is at stake,” he said.
Bringing Peace and Stability to the Region
After his appointment as crown prince in 2017, bin Salman launched his Vision 2030 initiative “to create a vibrant society in which all citizens can fulfill their dreams, hopes and ambitions to succeed in a thriving economy,” according to the Vision 2030 website.
Singh said bin Salman is seen by many as a visionary young prince who has also called for a “moderate Islam” that’s different from “pure Islam,” or Wahhabism.
“In May 2018, Saudi women were given a green signal to drive—a major domestic policy change in the country,” said Singh. “The Prince’s confidence showed through even in the face of domestic resistance and criticism. It was obviously because of U.S. endorsement under President Trump.”
She mentioned that Trump “reaffirmed” his promise to support Vision 2030 during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, earlier this year.
“Trump said the U.S. under him is ‘prepared to offer advice to help the Vision 2030 succeed.’ In short, Saudi Vision 2030, the brainchild of MBS [bin Salman] certainly has President Trump’s support,” said Singh.
Manjari noted that while Trump has wanted to disengage from the Middle East, after the Sept. 16 attacks on Saudi oil facilities he was unable to do so.
Singh said re-engagement in the region became imperative because the attacks on the “world’s most strategically significant oil facility” reflected poorly on the United States, as a country under its protection was targeted.
“The most advanced air defense systems—the Patriot and AWAC systems installed jointly by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to protect the oil production sites—were attacked, thus posing a question mark on the efficacy of the Patriot and AWAC systems,” she said.
“Last, the attacks came at a time when the U.S. is looking forward to ‘actively engaging’ in the Indo-Pacific, and thus going back to the Middle East can be exhaustive,” she explained.
Singh said the United States and Saudi Arabia have to come together to upgrade the defense system to “counter the attacks from such drones and missiles as were used on the Saudi facilities.”