The Emiratis are very pleased, meanwhile, with the Trump administration’s embrace of Egyptian president Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi—who the Obama administration kept at arm’s length following the coup that brought him to power in 2013. They also seem to think key members of the Trump administration share their negative assessment of the government in Baghdad.
So what’s this visit all about?
Riyadh, mainly. As I have written, one can view the initial Emirati decision to participate in the campaign in Yemen as a strategic investment in the architect of that campaign, the Saudi deputy crown prince Mohamed bin Salman (colloquially, MbS). The Emiratis reason the influential young prince can be the next king of Saudi Arabia and, given his age, can rule for decades. They also see something in MbS and his circle of advisors they haven’t previously seen in Saudi Arabia: dynamism. The Emiratis—much like the youth of Saudi Arabia—have placed a lot of hope in the ability of MbS to carry out the aggressive economic reforms laid out in Saudi Vision 2030. The Emiratis were desperate during the Obama administration for the United States to build closer ties with MbS and embrace his reforms, and they see an opportunity for the Trump administration to do the same.
The Trump administration appears to be abiding. Trump’s four predecessors visited one of America’s neighbors—either Mexico or Canada—in their first trips overseas. Trump, by contrast, will visit Saudi Arabia, following some groundwork laid by key advisors including Jared Kushner, Dina Powell, and Defense Secretary James Mattis. The Emiratis want the president’s visit to go well and for the administration to send a clear message on behalf of the United States that the country stands by its Sunni Gulf partners against Iranian malign activity in the region—a repudiation of the former president’s assertion (famously made in these pages) that the Sunni Gulf states would have to “share” the region with their Iranian neighbors.
Two things—aside from the volatility of the president himself—can trip this visit up. The first is the uncertainty about what, if anything, Trump might ask for from MbZ and other Gulf leaders. I personally, however, don’t think he’ll ask for anything: As much as the president talks a big game about how he’s a deal-maker and gets America’s allies to pay “their fair share,” I think he’s much more likely to pocket arms sales already in the pipeline—such as the recent $2 billion air defense deal with the UAE and a pending mega-deal with Saudi Arabia—as evidence this administration is getting America’s partners to do more.
The second thing that could stick in the craw of the U.S.-UAE relationship is more economic: U.S. airlines have complained for years that Gulf, state-sponsored airlines compete on an uneven playing surface. This seems like the kind of cause an “America First” White House would take up eagerly. The Emiratis also have things they can gripe about here, though: Donald Trump’s ridiculous travel bans have hammered the profits of Gulf airlines—none more than those of Emirates Airlines. So there’s a cost to Trumpism, even for those most excited about its promise.