The Middle East leg of President Trump’s first trip abroad is complete, and it was a success. By restoring a strong U.S. relationship with the most important and influential country in the region, Saudi Arabia, Washington has new leverage, and the opportunity to achieve significant results in four critical areas.
The first is on counter-terrorism. Trump’s Riyadh address put the burden on traditional U.S. allies to take the lead in attacking the ongoing problem of the spread of ISIS-style ideology. Though respectful and diplomatic, the president did not shy away from using terms like “Islamic extremism.” That boldness was a necessary negotiating tactic.
The notion advanced by some Trump critics, that the Saudi government is to blame for the global spread of violent Jihadism, is misleading and inaccurate. However, because of the Kingdom’s strong desire to have a close relationship with the U.S., combined with their influential status in the Muslim world, Riyadh is in a strong position to lead more meaningful internal discussions about why the terrorism problem is happening. That is essential to stopping it, or at least limiting its occurrence.
Whereas previous Arab regimes avoided having uncomfortable internal conversations about the nature of Islamic extremism, the post-Riyadh summit expectation has changed. Conveniently and simplistically blaming the Muslim Brotherhood will no longer suffice. The price of the restoration of such good relations is that the ball is in their court to take the lead in fully addressing the problem, not the United States.
Second, clear economic and trade gains emerged from the Riyadh Summit. For their part, Saudi Arabia committed several hundred billion in investments in the U.S.The trip also cemented the preferred status of American companies in the Saudi market.
Equally important, President Trump moved U.S. policy towards linkages of counter-terrorism objectives with the fate of Saudi Arabia’s long-term economic reform agenda. Riyadh’s top domestic priority is its “Saudi 2030” program, an ambitious attempt to implement systemic long-term economic reform that leads to the level of job creation needed for long-term political stability.
Whereas President Obama never saw fit to mention the program, the more business-oriented Trump called it “an important and encouraging statement of tolerance, respect, empowering women, and economic development.”
Nothing will be more effective at undermining the anti-establishment narrative of groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda than for “Saudi 2030” to succeed. It is a critical U.S. counter-terrorism interest and the Riyadh Summit speech should be the building block of diplomatic support by the State Department for this objective. This does not mandate any extra spending of USAID. It merely means focusing limited diplomatic attention and capital on seeing the program succeed.
Third, President Trump’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia has created an unusual opportunity for new movement on Israel-Palestine. The Saudis and the closely aligned Emirates, have every incentive to demonstrate their value to the U.S.by leaning on the Palestinians, especially the more hardline factions, to compromise. As major funders of the Palestinian groups, they have the ability to do that.
This is a new dynamic at play only because of this effort by the Trump administration to rebuild the relationship with the Kingdom. This is an accurate and realistic recognition of the dynamics of power in the Middle East region. If the U.S. neglects the Saudis as the previous administration did, they will have little influence to help the U.S. achieve its objectives.
Finally, the Riyadh Summit is going to contribute towards countering Iran in a way that fosters regional stability. This, of course, does not mean going to war with Iran as critics claim. But if countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel feel insecure and unsupported against Iran, they will take steps to respond on their own. One example of this is Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
The Riyadh Summit couldn’t have been a clearer sign of Washington’s support for its traditional allies. It will go a long way towards creating the desired “healthy confidence” among U.S. allies that will help stabilize the region.
The foundations for a successful Middle East policy have been set. All that remains is its implementation.
Nathan Field is the founder and former CEO of Industry Arabic, a translation company that provided services to over 300 high-profile customers throughout the Middle East. He worked for two years as a consultant in Saudi Arabia for the U.N.-sponsored Gulf War environmental remediation program. He holds a master’s in International Security from Georgetown University.
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