President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia earned warm embraces, multi-billion-dollar investments, and a joint commitment to fight against the barbarism of ISIS and the territorial threats of Iran.
This good cheer surprised many Americans: After all, U.S. media commentators have spent the last year warning that Trump’s comments about Muslims and threats of a Muslim ban would imperil relations throughout Arabia. I’ve recently spent time in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. My
conversations convinced me that officials and non-officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE were looking forward to working with Trump, after troubling relations with President Obama.
By insisting on the Iran nuclear agreement, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry ignored Gulf allies and created a roadmap for Iran to pursue nuclear weapons. President Trump takes a much more suspicious view of Iran and a more positive view of Saudi and other Gulf states working together to thwart terrorist activity and Iran’s territorial ambitions. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis perceive Saudi as a highly motivated counter-terrorism partner.
The Trump administration should try to put together what I would call the “Alliance against Barbarism.” This would be made up of Mediterranean and Middle East powers that are committed to fighting against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other extremist groups devoted to terrorism. The Trump administration is encouraged that discussions – whether official or unofficial – have taken place among diverse countries, including Egypt, Israel, the UAE, and Saudi. A few weeks ago in Greece, the U.S. helped organize a joint military exercise among the air forces of Italy, Greece, UAE, the U.S., and Israel. If we are to be guardians of civilization, we must form an Alliance against Barbarism.
On economic relations, I believe that Saudi Arabia must recognize the following paradox: Although the current low price of oil hampers Saudi’s budget goals, in the long run it creates a positive opportunity for better relations with the U.S. Until just a few years ago, most Washington insiders discussed Saudi as if it were a synonym for high oil prices and OPEC.
Clearly, as a low-cost producer, Saudi’s budget benefits when oil prices are high. However, with the rise of shale oil production, natural gas fracking, etc. (which have sliced US oil imports from 65% of oil consumed down to about 20%), the U.S. can begin to view Saudi as a more diversified player in the world economy. In the long run, this is a positive development for both countries.
The U.S. is encouraged by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030. While prior trade relations have been dominated by oil and by military weapons, the Vision 2030 goal to raise Saudi’s non-oil exports from roughly 16% to 50%, would be both remarkable and healthy for its economy. U.S. firms would be eager to engage in technology, healthcare, and education – sectors where Saudi could especially benefit from closer relations. The success of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology demonstrates that Saudi can generate world-class innovation, if it creates a rigorous but open learning environment, including for women. More must be done to support human rights, but Saudi is now pointing in the right direction toward education — while Iran, its neighbor across the Persian Gulf, wields sabers, scimitars, and fissionable plutonium.