Analysis - Political Transformations

Trump Challenge

Saudi Arabia’s uncertainty and points of leverage post US elections

Friday، November 11، 2016
Trump Challenge

Saudi diplomats are observing the next occupant of the White House with unease. It is a feeling that extends to the Arab world in general but is particularly notable in Riyadh after the victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the US presidential elections.

There is much to justify this anxiety. Most forecasts throughout the long months leading up to the election strongly indicated that Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton would sweep to the White House, based on continuous opinion polls and a flood of analyses by American, Western and Arab experts who predicted a “guaranteed” victory for Clinton. 

Creating a strategy and planning on how to deal with the surprising Trump presidency will require time. Especially given the president-elect’s public positions and hostile statements towards Saudi Arabia, the importance of the Saudi-US relationship, and the negative impacts shaking this relationship would have on the Kingdom at a time when it faces escalating political and economic crises.

A tense relationship

The Washington-Riyadh relations has faced growing tension since the start of the Arab Spring, heightened by last year’s signing of an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, which apparently indicated a limited detente in American-Iranian relations.

Tensions reached a peak in recent weeks when the American Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which, although did not mention the Kingdom explicitly, it is seen as primarily targeting Saudi interests.

While a Clinton victory would not have necessarily meant an immediate improvement in ties, it would at least have guaranteed that Saudi diplomats were dealing with someone they have dealt with before -- during Clinton’s time as Secretary of State -- who has clear and familiar positions on the Kingdom and regional issues.

Uncertainty around Trump’s politics

Uncertainty is a key reason why Saudis are concerned about difficulties in dealing with Trump. It is impossible to foresee what his actual foreign policy will look like, especially given that he has no previous political experience.

Despite his statements attacking Muslims and Saudi Arabia itself during his election campaign, the policies Trump adopts after taking office in January 2017 may be very different, by virtue of the nature of the job.

Trump belongs to the Republican Party, despite taking many positions that contrast with traditional Republican values. Historically, Saudi-US ties have been better under previous Republican presidents, whose dealings with the kingdom have been dictated purely by interest. The issues that have most often caused friction with Democratic administrations, such as human rights, are not considered a priority for most Republican presidents.

It appears that Trump will follow much of the same path, not being particularly concerned with human rights issues but rather prioritizing the fight against terrorism and promoting American interests above all else. 

Saudi non-negotiables

It is still too early to talk about a particular Saudi approach to deal with the new president and his administration. It is important that Saudi decision-makers take their time to draft a strategy as it becomes clear how Trump will deal with the region.

However, it is also important to note that several essential elements of Saudi dealings with the United States will remain constant -- most importantly, in the realms of security, intelligence-sharing, and trade relations, particularly arms deals. On all these fronts, Riyadh and Washington are likely to adopt a “business as usual” approach, as these issues relate to shared interests between the two sides.

Also, Saudi officials are very much aware that statements made during election campaigns cannot be taken as clear indications of the policies a new president will adopt after taking office. In an interview with CNN immediately after Trump’s victory, Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Jubeir, made this clear in comments on the real-estate mogul’s language during the election campaign and his accusations that Saudi Arabia depends on the United States and its Armed Forces.

Jubeir told the channel that Saudi Arabia is a staunch ally of Washington, dealing with it as an equal and that the Kingdom can look after itself without needing anyone else to support it. He said that statements during election campaigns are one thing, but as presidents reach the oval office and gain access to high-level intelligence, they often change their views of relationships based on that new information. 

Iran, Syria and other thorny issues

On the other hand, there is deep uncertainty concerning Trump’s approach to two highly sensitive matters that are vital to Saudi national security - the new American administration’s relationship with Iran and its approach towards the Syrian crisis.  

Saudi Arabia believes that Iran is blatantly interfering in countries across the region and that the nuclear deal with the United States and world powers, along with the partial lifting of sanctions, has emboldened it to do so.

Therefore, Trump's campaign statements denouncing the nuclear deal may give Saudis a measure of optimism. However, this optimism is tempered with caution. For a start, statements made during election runs must be taken with skepticism. Secondly, reviewing treaties signed by previous administrations takes time. The issue will also depend on the character of the next Secretary of State and who Trump appoints as his advisor on the Middle East, who, at the time of writing this article, has not been selected yet.

Syria is also an issue of great concern for Saudi Arabia. During his election campaign, Trump expressed his support for the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, given the lack of a decent alternative. The elected president believes that if Assad were to fall, he would be replaced by a radical Islamist regime and jihadist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (a former al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Jabhat Al-Nusra). 

Given the fact that separating Syria's moderate opposition from its radical Islamist counterpart in Syria seems impossible at this point, Trump's opposition to any direct American intervention in the country and the fact that he has prioritized obliterating ISIS, it appears that the only solution in his eyes is for Assad to remain in power. 

This sharply contrasts with the Saudi position, which states there can be no political solution in Syria while Assad remains. Therefore, Saudi Arabia may seek new allies who support its aim of getting rid of the Assad regime.

Saudi points of leverage

Following Trump's victory, analysts provided varying insights and analyses on the impact it would have on Saudi-American relations. Some were extremely pessimistic, arguing that the Kingdom must seek out new allies as alternatives to the United States, as argued by Max Fisher in the New York Times on November 9.

Other analysts were more measured, claiming that Saudi diplomacy is robust enough to navigate unfamiliar ground and periods of uncertainty and that Saudi Arabia has successfully overcome tougher and more sensitive situations.

Saudi-American relations went through an extremely tough phase during the Obama administration. This experience convinced the Kingdom's decision-makers that relying solely on the United States to guarantee its security was no longer viable. Indeed, the Kingdom shifted its foreign policy towards self-reliance and building of new alliances. 

The issue of JASTA still greatly concerns Saudi Arabia, especially given that there is little chance the law will be altered by a Republican-dominated Congress, which is likely to show increased support for legislation that allows for litigation against the Kingdom. Another issue worrying Saudi Arabia is Trump’s aggressive language towards Muslims and attacks on Islam as a religion, regardless of its relationship with extremism - or lack of one. This in itself, may provoke an increase in Islamist extremism. 

Oil is no longer a primary source of leverage for the Saudis, as it has been in the past, but there are other cards that Riyadh can play as it formulates its approach to the new administration, including:

  • Security and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia. According to a document released by the State Department in March 2016, Saudi Arabia plays a key role in Middle East security due to its economic strength, political orientation, cultural influence and strategic location. The document says that the United States must work with the Kingdom to support its efforts to fight terrorism, protect shared interests and ensure regional stability. The United States is likely to continue to work with the Kingdom to improve the training of its special forces and counter-terror units, integrate its air and missile defenses, strengthen its cyber security and support its maritime forces.
  • Arms sales. Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest foreign buyers of American weapons, purchasing an estimated USD 100 billion on weaponry over the past few years. In November 2015, the United States agreed to sell the Kingdom air-to-ground missiles and related equipment, spare parts and logistical support worth USD 1.29 billion. In October 2015, Washington signed a deal to sell Riyadh several warships, related equipment, spares and logistical support worth USD 11.25 billion. With Trump at the head of a Republican administration that will actively support US arms manufacturers, this sphere of Saudi-US cooperation will likely be revitalized.
  • Economic and trade relations. Saudi is an important trade partner to the US. The Kingdom is the United States’ 12th-biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting USD 45 billion in 2015. The Kingdom also holds USD 750 billion in investments, deposits and financial assets in American markets, including USD 119 billion in treasury bonds.
  • The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi efforts to enhance cooperation between GCC members may provide those states with alternative options for promoting their stability and national security, as was made apparent during the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

In conclusion, Saudi Arabia faces many challenges in dealing with the new American administration, which will demand the formulation of a new, comprehensive foreign policy. It will take time for the situation to become clear, as it is hard to predict immediately whether the Trump administration will provide a headache or an opportunity to the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia, however, has several cards it can play to increase its gains from its relations with the United States and its new president.

Keywords: GCCSaudi Arabiamiddle eastUSSaudiTrumpUS Elections