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As US-Saudi relationship sours, a new suitor has come calling

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In withdrawing American troops from Syria, President Trump has served notice that he is ready to abandon U.S. partners in the Middle East on a tweet’s notice.

This doubtlessly sent shivers down the spine of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who has bet on Trump’s rhetorical fulminations against Iran to assume strong American backing for his confrontation with Iran for primacy in the Arab world.

The Iranians can “do what they want in Syria,” Trump dismissively said on Jan. 2 as he defended his decision to pull 2,000 American military personnel aiding Syrian Kurds to defeat Islamic State extremists in northeastern Syria.

{mosads}In his speech in Cairo and again in Riyadh, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to reassure America’s allies the United States is not retreating from the Middle East even as he reaffirmed Trump’s commitment to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

This doublespeak is certain to be interpreted in Riyadh as a repeat of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq ordered by President Obama in 2009, which former Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal heatedly denounced as handing over that country to Iran “on a golden platter.” Now Trump is handing over Syria to them as well.

Indeed, Trump has confirmed what MbS could not abide hearing from Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi columnist for the Washington Post whom he had murdered and cut into pieces inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.

Khashoggi had warned Saudi rulers that Trump was unpredictable. His fall from royal grace began shortly after Trump’s electoral victory in November 2016 when Khashoggi noted the new American leader’s foreign policies were contradictory toward Iran and opined, “I think Saudi Arabia should be ready for surprises.”

At that point, Trump was courting Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Khashoggi pointed out supported two sworn enemies of Saudi Arabia — Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Saudi government immediately banned Khashoggi from all Saudi media, driving him to take up exile in the United States in September 2017 and begin writing columns mildly critical of the crown prince for The Washington Post Opinion section.

Now, ironically, it is King Salman and his impetuous 33-year-old son, MbS, who are courting Putin. He is scheduled to visit Riyadh shortly, possibly later this month, and is sure to be warmly feted as Saudi Arabia’s new-found friend to show Washington it has alternatives.

They are particularly aware that Putin has stuck with al-Assad throughout a seven-year popular uprising, in contrast to former President Obama, who called upon Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to step down just days after the first street protests in 2011.

Is it possible the Saudi romance with Trump is over and that Putin might take his place as the most honored guest of the Saudi kingdom? Clearly the Saudis are beginning to hedge their bets against possible U.S. abandonment, a fear deeply embedded in the Saudi psyche after watching Obama dump Mubarak and negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.

Crown Prince Mohammed, now the kingdom’s de facto ruler, is so concerned about growing hostility toward himself in Congress and the American media in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder that he has been mulling an audacious gambit to restore his welcome in Washington: a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presided over by Trump.

Netanyahu’s decision to hold new elections in April would seem to make such an historic event less likely, at least in the immediate future. But it may well still happen.

In the wake of Khashoggi’s assassination, the deep disillusionment of Congress and the American media with the crown prince has left the Trump-Mohammed romance the main glue holding the U.S.-Saudi relationship together.

It began with the Saudis treating Trump on visit to Riyadh in May 2017, his first trip abroad, like a knight in shining armor come to co-command the Saudi battle against Iran. Even before Khashoggi’s death, the romance had begun to sour due to the crown prince’s reckless foreign policy, so far at considerable cost even to the Trump administration’s strategy for containing Iran. 

The 2015 Saudi-led invasion by nine Arab states of neighboring Yemen in the name of crushing Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has become a military quagmire and produced the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. 

Repeated bombings of civilian targets by the Saudi-led coalition, often in U.S.-provided warplanes dropping American-made precision bombs, resulted in the Senate last month passing a resolution calling for an end to all U.S. support for the Saudi-led war there.

Then came the Saudi decision in June 2017 to impose a land, air and sea blockade on neighboring Qatar for its alleged support of Islamic terrorists and Iranian ties. This has split America’s regional allies into feuding camps to the great glee of Tehran.

It has even turned Trump from initially backing Saudi Arabia to now applauding Qatar, which has proven a generous host to the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command in charge of all American military operations from Syria to Afghanistan.

While the doors in Washington have been closing on the Saudi crown prince, those in Moscow have been opening wider, and the king and his son are now reciprocating. Serious Saudi courtship of Putin began with the four-day visit of King Salman to Moscow in March 2017, the first ever by a Saudi monarch.

Since then, MbS, who is also the defense minister, has been there several times to discuss oil and Russian arms sales.

{mossecondads}Russia has already proved its value to Saudi Arabia in combating the new American role in setting international oil prices by coordinating their production levels to combat soaring U.S. production.

Russia has also offered to sell Saudi Arabia its S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense system, and the Saudi ambassador in Moscow said last June talks with the Saudis were “well advanced.”

The Saudis also have to decide whether to begin building the first of their planned 16 nuclear reactors worth $80 billion with the help of American or Russian companies. They have been balking at U.S. legislation that prohibits American companies from sharing their nuclear technology with a foreign government unless it agrees not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel at home.

The Saudis want to reserve that option in case Iran, which is already doing both, choses to build a nuclear bomb, a step the crown prince has promised Saudi Arabia will immediately seek to match.

Strange to think that the fate of the U.S.-Saudi relationship has now come to depend on Putin’s success in convincing the King Salman and his son that Russia has become a credible alternative to the United States or on Netanyahu to persuade the Congress that Saudi Arabia is Israel’s new indispensable partner. 

David Ottaway is a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. 

Tags Donald Trump House of Saud Jamal Khashoggi Kings of Saudi Arabia Mike Pompeo Mohammad bin Salman OPEC Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia–United States relations Vladimir Putin
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