Can Trump and Mohammed bin Salman fix the US-Saudi relationship?
It would be wishful thinking to assume that America’s shale-led energy revolution would subside any time soon. It simply makes too much economic sense for the shale industry to eventually bounce back with even more innovative technologies to keep the oil flowing.
In fact, President Trump’s administration has shown every indication that it will strengthen its commitment to shale. In an article published in The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead astutely wrote that “the basis of any Trump Revolution would have to be energy,” which may spell the end of American dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Where does this leave Saudi Arabia?
At a surface level, it may seem like there aren’t any non-oil aspects of Saudi Arabia upon which a strategic ally like the United States could build a relationship. However, we must take into consideration the fact that the historical relations between the two countries were not merely based on economic aspects, but also security, intelligence, and geopolitically strategic ones as well.
Saudi Arabia was America’s most important partner in thwarting Soviet intervention in the Middle East. To this day, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most cooperative countries with Washington, providing intelligence that saved thousands of American lives. Maintaining this level of cooperation, however, has been relatively compromised by the passing of the now-infamous Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
That said, is it still in America’s interest to continue to invest in this relationship? To answer this question, let us take a look into the Kingdom’s strategic components, which have been diligently put into focus by the deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
The first strategic component is that Saudi Arabia is home to the Two Holy Mosques. This grants the Kingdom unparalleled religious magnitude, allowing it to wield the sort of influence that is indispensable in the fight against religious extremism, be it ideologically, militarily or even digitally.
The second component is the country’s location, which gives the Kingdom the distinction of being located near three marine shipping lanes: the Strait of Hormuz, Bab al-Mandab and the Suez Canal. More than 30 percent of world trade passes through here every year. The third component is Saudi Arabia’s investment strength. Not only does the Kingdom still have the second largest financial reserves in the world, it also intends on putting it to good use.
Saudi Arabia has ambitious investment plans in most countries of the world, and it is particularly focused on investing in the US. Bin Salman is very keen to place America as one of the most important countries to expand its sovereign-wealth fund into, especially in the field of technology. In fact, circles of influence under bin Salman’s supervision revealed that the volume of new investments in America will create more than 400,000 jobs for American citizens over the course of 10 years.
Such investments into the American economy are only a part of Saudi Arabia’s massive economic transformation. After announcing Saudi’s Vision 2030, bin Salman’s first stop was a two-week visit to America, where he met with leaders of major U.S. corporations in nearly every field.
This visit was singularly important, as it is clear evidence that Saudi Arabia yearns to learn from the American entrepreneurial spirit that proved resilient in America’s toughest economic times, the same spirit that Saudi needs for its economic transformation to succeed.
Even though Saudi Arabia is still the largest U.S. trading partner in the Middle East, the future of any economic relationship between the two countries should be built upon transparency and living up to the requirements of either country’s economic demands. This will be especially true under a Trump administration, where the potential for a mutually beneficial economic partnership is undoubtedly enormous. However, both countries know that economic prosperity is not possible without a robust national security policy.
Such a policy should be centered on collaboratively working toward solving the multitude of problems in the Middle East, as it could underpin the strategic relationship between Riyadh and Washington. With a straightforward pragmatist like Trump, these solutions will only be sought after by dealing with like-minded pragmatists, such as bin Salman. In fact, bin Salman is uniquely positioned to become the primary pillar for the Trump administration to build its foreign policy toward the Muslim world upon.
Not only did he initiate a coalition of 41 Muslim countries to fight terrorism, he also established a technologically sophisticated center for countering extremism online called the Digital Extremism Observatory (DEO). Most recently, he formed the Ideological Warfare Center (IWC), which also aims to counter extremism by promoting Islam’s values of moderation and tolerance.
The Trump administration and bin Salman also have the shared goal of countering Iran’s aggressive interventionism in the region, which is considered to be the main contributing factor to the emergence of extremist groups that continue to threaten both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. While one could argue that the Kingdom is ready to face these threats militarily, the real battle may lie in the public relations arena.
One of Saudi Arabia’s glaring weak points is public diplomacy, especially with regards to communicating its economic and national security concerns to the American public. The Kingdom’s media efforts remain woefully behind where it needs to be in order to communicate effectively with the people of the U.S., as it is in dire need of a strategic overhaul.
In an age where information is disseminated so rapidly, the Kingdom has no excuse but to reach out to the American people, who are more politically engaged than ever before. Public communication — be it through the media, academia or culture — should be among Saudi Arabia’s top priorities with regards to its relationship with the U.S.
After all, this relationship has endured enormous strain, and the challenges it faced were quite great. However, the chances for both Trump and bin Salman to foster a stronger, more economically prosperous U.S.-Saudi relationship are even greater.
Salman Al-Ansari is the Founder and President of the Washington, DC-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC). You can find him on Twitter: @Salansar1.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.