President Trump in Saudi Arabia
President Trump in Saudi Arabia: The Symbolic and Substantive Meaning of the Visit
President Trump’s upcoming visit to Riyadh signals a new chapter in relations with Saudi Arabia after years of strife during the Obama administration. On the symbolic side, this is the first foreign visit of the president and, according to reports, Saudi Arabia is determined to make it a most memorable event. For Trump, who had accused the Kingdom of not paying for American protection, this would be an opportunity to highlight his newly-found friendship with Riyadh.
On the substantive side, the visit marks a dramatic upgrade in the role of Saudi Arabia in Washington’s new Iran containment policy. Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, and General James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, are the architects of the new policy. Tillerson, a former head of Exxon Mobil who worked closely with the Saudis, has taken a dim view of Iran’s expanding reach in the Middle East. Not coincidently, other respected foreign policy officials share this position, including Robert Gates who recommended hiring Tillerson. As a former head of Central Command, General Mattis recommended cross-border actions against Iran, only to be overruled by Obama and resign. Both have repeatedly stressed that Iran has been a leading sponsor of terror and an agent of destabilization in the region.
If things go to plan, Saudi Arabia will lead the new containment coalition, which the Americans tellingly describe as a “fight against Islamist radicalism of ISIS and Iran.” A White House statement noted that both countries are working on strengthening and elevating “the United States-Saudi strategic relationship.” The two sides agreed to cooperate more in the economic, commercial, investment and energy fields and start a new U.S.-Saudi program worth potentially more than $200 billion in direct and indirect investments within the next four years.
During the trip, President Trump would apparently sign a multi- billion military aid package. The package is likely to include the Lockheed Martin- produced Terminal High Altitude Arial Defense (THAAD) missile defense system worth $1bn. Also included are the Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communications (C2BMC) software system which the American Missile Defense Agency (MDA) uses to integrate ballistic missile defenses. Besides, four multi-mission surface combatant ships worth $ 11.5 billion may be added. In 2015, the State Department approved the purchase, but no contract was signed at the time. The Trump administration would also sell $1bn worth of munitions, including armor-piercing Penetrator warheads and Pave way laser-guided bombs which President Obama had suspended out of concern for Tehran. The sale would also include an unspecified number of Bradley vehicles and M109 Paladin 155m howitzers.
In addition to the massive arms deal, President Trump and King Salman plan to discuss the outline of the US-Saudi strategic collaboration against “radical Islamism of ISIS and Iran.”
- Fighting Iran’s influence in Yemen is high on the agenda. Despite a nearly two-year intervention in the civil war in Yemen, the Saudi forces and their coalition partners did not manage to defeat the Houthis whom the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Quds Force support. Taking Al Hudaydah, a port in western Yemen, which Iran uses to ship military supplies to the Houthis, is of crucial importance. As of this writing, the administration has not decided whether to use the military in its support of Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen.
- Defending the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb Straits is also vital. The Houthi insurgents have triggered several incidents in the strategic passageway which serves a vital route for Egypt, another key American ally, as well as other African countries. Activity in Bab-al-Mandeb is part of Iran’s 20-year plan to create a maritime strategic triangle stretching from the Straits of Hurmuz to Bab-el-Mandeb in the Red Sea and the Straits of Malacca in the Indian Ocean. The plan calls for the use of a hybrid, asymmetrical, maritime, irregular warfare (MIW) to limit American maritime access to the Straits of Hormuz and disrupted vital chock points. Known as anti-access, anti-denial (A2/AD) strategy, it requires many discrete capabilities. Among them are land and sea-based anti-ship cruise missiles, use of naval mines, which small commercial vessel can deploy covertly, small fast-attack craft best suited for swarming operation or suicide attacks such as against the USS Cole, and drones.
- Saudi reengagement in the Syrian civil war is also considered. Iran’s role in propping Bashar Assad and its plans to dominate Syria has angered the Trump team and Intelligence indicates that Saudi Arabia would supply weapons to the opposition forces via Jordan. A joint Saudi-Jordanian expeditionary force supported by a thousand American troops has been spotted massing on the border of Syria and Jordan ahead of the assault on Raqqa.
- A possible covert Saudi operation to destabilize Iran. Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Defense Minister, and the son of the King noted that Iran was working to undermine the Sunni Kingdom and its control of the holy sites. He warned that Saudi Arabia would preempt by “taking the battle into Iran.” While bin Salman did not elaborate, the Iranian authorities reacted harshly. Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, Minister of Defense, threatened to destroy Saudi Arabia, except for Mecca and Medina. In the past, the United States has launched several covert operations in Iran - either on its own or with Israel - to roll back the regime’s nuclear project. In 2016, the Iranians blamed the Saudis and the Israelis for several sabotage acts on oil field facilities. Because of their highly clandestine nature, the reports on the new venture cannot be verified. Conceptually, counterterrorism plans derive from the rational choice theory which stipulates that attacks on Iran’s soil would raise the cost of “doing business” for the regime.
For Saudi Arabia, which the Obama administration sidelined to please Iran, the new position is a win-win situation. Not only has the Kingdom been restored to prominence in the American line-up in the Middle East, but Washington has described its historical enemy, Iran, as a radical Islamist force, alongside ISIS. The Trump administration has also signaled that internal Saudi politics and human rights issue would not weight down the new strategic collaboration.