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Trump and the Saudi Art of the Deal

Saudi Defense Minister Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (L) meets US President Donald Trump (R) at the White House in Washington, United States on March 14, 2017.
(Photo by Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

America’s Shifting Role in Middle East Affairs

by James Denselow*

This week sees U.S. President Donald Trump make the first foreign trips of his nascent administration. In addition to the standard prestige that comes with being the first port of call for a new President are the real tactical and strategic discussions and announcements that will be on the table. A beleaguered President Trump, facing continued fallout from his decision to sack FBI Director James Comey, will likely welcome the chance to make the news on the international stage. But as ever with Trump, things are likely to be hugely unpredictable.

The Saudi capital Riyadh will play the first host to Trump and the list of topics to address between the Kingdom and Washington is particularly long. The conflict in Yemen, Trump’s plans for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what next for ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria, the political standoff in Lebanon, trade and how best to halt the perceived Iranian expansionism in the region headline a packed agenda.

Ahead of the visit reports suggest that the final touches are being put together on $100 billion worth of arms deal made up of American arms and maintenance, ships, air missile defense and maritime security that will allow the former CEO of the Trump Organisation to highlight his strength when it comes to securing good deals for America. After all, President Trump is the author of ‘The Art of the Deal’ and shaking hands on a big, round figure like that will confirm his USP as deal maker in chief.

Predicting Trump’s foreign policy has become the source of much discussion in DC’s think tanks. He has incredibly limited experience and knowledge of the complexities of the Middle East. His ‘America First’ doctrine appears at first glance to see the region solely as a sink of American money and lives rather than a strategic arena in which the U.S. should play a prominent role.

FOCUS ON YEMEN

Yet the Trump Presidency has already made significant practical shifts from that of his predecessor. In Yemen for example there has been an unblocking of arms deals and an increase in intelligence sharing and logistics support to the Saudi-led coalition. Yemen was also the site of Trump’s first military operation when a Navy Seal mission killed dozens of people, mainly civilians, and saw the first US casualty of the conflict when Chief Special Warfare Operator William Owens was killed. Yemen has showed Trump to be both unpredictable and risky but fundamentally willing to take a different approach to relations with Saudi Arabia.

U.S President Donald Trump gives a joint statement with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on May 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

THE IRAN DEAL

Whilst the Iran Nuclear Deal was seen by the Obama administration as their high water mark for success in the region, Trump has been critical of the agreement and seems willing to re-balance US interests in favour of Saudi and Gulf allies. Consolidating this new approach may come up at the upcoming joint US-Arab Islamic summit which is expected to cover enhancing counter-terrorism cooperation in the context of the myriad of regional conflicts.

Trump described the Iran deal as the “worst deal ever” and his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, ordered a review of it in April. Yet whilst there is no sign that it will be fundamentally challenged or scrapped, the Trump approach to Tehran certainly appears to lack a desire to engage in diplomatic nuance with Tillerson describing the country bluntly as a “leading state sponsor of terror, through many platforms and methods.”

THE SYRIA DILEMMA

The Yemen conflict has sucked much of the oxygen out of Saudi’s Syria policy but the two countries will be keen to discuss how they can play a more meaningful role in a conflict that is being dominated by Russia, Turkey and Iran. De-escalation zones are the latest tactic of choice to emerge from the Astana process, but they lack significant detail or buy in from participants. Whilst both Riyadh and Washington are currently more peripheral players in this deeply intractable conflict, they remain important. The flow of money and arms to a variety of armed groups will influence how the battles for Raqqa and perhaps more importantly Idlib, home to hundreds of thousands of civilians, will develop.

The priority from Riyadh may be more about what kind of red lines can be agreed as to what permanent presence Iran has in Syria. They will have noted Hezbollah’s declaration of a withdrawal from the Lebanese-Syrian borderland but the force posture of Tehran in Syria has fluctuated and would seem to be laying strategic roots rather than temporary tactical ones.

MOVING FORWARD IN LEBANON & PALESTINE

The positive news that surrounded the agreement around a new President in Lebanon in October of last year has dissipated somewhat following a stalled attempt to agree on a new electoral law. Once again the country faces a showdown and threat of further political instability. Trump is unlikely to be familiar enough or interested enough in the subtleties of Beirut’s politics but rather both countries may pledge continued commitment to the country’s stability and again make a point to warn Iran against challenging the wobbling status quo.

When it comes to the most long standing and intractable conflict that the region hosts, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, King Salman may be particularly interested to learn more about the President’s plans. If the new President could somehow repay the faith placed in him by President Abbas after his recent visit, then Trump could seal his place in history by sculpting and sealing the ultimate foreign policy deal of a generation. However, this remains highly unlikely as the realpolitik of the situation on the ground, with a continued split between Palestinian authority in the West Bank and Gaza as well as an increase in Israeli settlements, mean that with an absence of any sense of what Trump’s plans are it is difficult to see progress ahead.

*James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a Director of the ‘New Diplomacy Platform’ (NDP). He has worked extensively in the Middle East, including research for foreign policy think tank Chatham House and has advised the British Government on its policy towards the Arab Spring. He is a Research Associate at the ‘Foreign Policy Centre’ (FPC) and a Fellow at the ‘Centre for Syrian Studies'(CSS).

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