The past four U.S. presidents, when making their first trips abroad, traveled to either Canada or Mexico. Donald Trump, by contrast, will go to Saudi Arabia—to meet not only with the Saudi leadership but with other Gulf and Arab leaders.
This is a move by the anti-Obama. The former president’s relations with America’s traditional regional partners were strained, so what better way to advertise that you’re not the former president than to embrace them whole-heartedly—despite some of the pointed things you yourself said about them on the campaign trail.
As I have previously written, the Gulf Arabs are still excited about Donald Trump, even as the president’s position among his own people continues to collapse following a weeklong artillery barrage of bombshells on everything from the president’s firing of the FBI director to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Predictions are always dangerous, and the last time I predicted something, it was that Trump would not strike Syria, but throwing caution to the wind yet again, here goes: I think Trump is going to have a very positive trip to the Kingdom.
The Saudis with whom I have spoken are prepared to roll out of the red carpet for the visiting U.S. president, and he will eat up their hospitality. As long as they keep the bilateral engagements short and do not subject the president to a procession of long-winded speeches by others, Trump will leave Saudi Arabia wishing he could spend more time in such places where people afford him more respect than the Washington press corps. For my part, I’ll be playing in the U.S. national rugby championships this weekend and am thus very disappointed to miss Toby Keith’s sure-to-be-amazing, men-only concert in Riyadh accompanied by an Arab lute player.
There are two issues of substance, though, that I want to address before the president arrives in Riyadh. The first issue is this idea of an “Arab NATO,” which Josh Rogin discussed this week in The Washington Post.
There are a few interesting things about this idea, and one of those things is that it isn’t new: U.S. strategists have long dreamed of creating an indigenous military coalition in the Gulf that could take some of the security burden off the 35,000 U.S. troops stationed there—or perhaps free up some of those 35,000 troops to do jobs elsewhere in, say, the Asia-Pacific region. I started looking into this idea in 2012 while serving on an academic fellowship in the U.S. Department of Defense and again looked at it last year while serving as the top Pentagon policy official for the region.
The idea works better in theory than practice for a few reasons. First, Arab states all want a close planning and intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States but not necessarily with one another. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, still have a lot of distrust of both Oman and Qatar, fearing those countries remain too close to Iran and Sunni extremists, respectively. So the United States necessarily becomes the hub in a hub-and-spoke model that is less a true coalition than a collection of individual states with bilateral relations with America.
Has the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen built a nascent Arab coalition out of the conflict there? Perhaps, but I still assess the differences of opinion between the GCC states in particular to be real and enduring—and that’s before we even begin to imagine adding Iraq to that mix, which from a U.S. perspective has to be a key player in future regional stability.
The second issue is one of capabilities and interoperability. The Yemen campaign has demonstrated that the Arab states have wildly differing levels of capabilities, with the UAE clearly the best in class. Other Arab states that have not played a big role in the conflict in Yemen—Jordan and Egypt come to mind—might not want to show their peers (and their publics) what their weaknesses are by participating in a coalition like that of NATO. Even those states that have played a big role in Yemen, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, now understand they have a lot of work to do before they have the kinds of military capabilities Iran will take seriously on the battlefield.
Military coalitions aside, the bigger existential question surrounding the president’s trip is whether the Arab states are worth all this effort. There was, after all, a reason the former president—when looking at the obligations the United States has globally and the resources the United States has available—wondered aloud whether or not the Arab Gulf states and Iran might finally share the region and allow the United States to pull back some of its investment.
This question, to put it mildly, horrified the leaders of the Sunni Gulf states. When I traveled around the region in my former government capacity, I was more frequently accosted by questions about why more U.S. troops weren’t in the region. Why, I was asked, had we not built the kind of enduring infrastructure in Qatar and the UAE that we had in, say, Germany and Japan?
I usually replied to my Gulf interlocutors by reminding them that my very first trip to their region was as a 22-year-old infantry officer sent to Kuwait after the September 11th attacks to protect vital infrastructure there. We have poured a lot of concrete in the region—especially over the past decade. I myself loved my time in Kuwait and grew fascinated by the broader region while stationed there, but when I travel home to East Tennessee, I would inform my Gulf friends, it wasn’t always intuitive to voters there why the United States needed to support such a huge commitment to their region when Appalachia is clearly more in need of U.S. government time and attention than the oil-rich Gulf states.
So is Trump right to be reversing the tone and message of his predecessor?
In the short term, probably. At the very least, reassuring Arab Gulf states that the United States stands behind them against Iran in particular could discourage unhelpful behavior and might even allow the Saudis and others to wind down the campaign in Yemen. Additionally, neither Trump nor his voters might like the Saudis all that much, but Saudi Arabia remains vitally important to the direction of both the region and other Muslim-majority states. I tend to buy the Emirati argument that although the United States doesn’t want to get caught up in any Saudi royal succession drama, we do have an interest in the aggressive reforms proposed by Mohamed bin Salman at least partially succeeding. Saudi Arabia cannot continue on its current course, and a more socially tolerant, economically diverse Saudi Arabia is in everyone’s interest. So if U.S. Crown Prince Jared Kushner and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman are now BFFs, well, great.
In the long term, though, the Arab states have to understand that America will not be in the region forever—at least not in today’s numbers. We have interests elsewhere, and finite resources to protect those interests. Also, putting it bluntly, ensuring Gulf hydrocarbon resources make their way to the market is less of a priority for the United States today than it was three decades ago.
But the United States will never abandon the region, still less withdraw overnight. Together, the United States and the Gulf partners can work hand-in-glove over the next decade to make sure Arab capabilities can stand on their own, and Arab states work better together in ways unimaginable today.