Saudi government officials are still trying to make sense of what the victory of Donald J. Trump, the most unconventional Presidential candidate in US history, in last month’s elections will mean for the currently-frayed relationship with its most important ally. There is in fact much reason for optimism. The President-Elect offers a real chance to constructively reset the relationship and once again make it a mutually beneficial one for both countries. Here are three reasons why:
#1 – Mr. Trump’s business background means he will appreciate the significance of the Kingdom’s ongoing reform Agenda
The chief domestic preoccupation by far of the Saudi government is the Vision 2030 plan, an ambitious series of economic (and hence political) reforms that aim to modernize the economy, decrease unemployment, and achieve a reasonable degree of diversification away from a reliance on oil.
What is remarkable, however, is how much the perception of the significance of Riyadh’s reform agenda, can vary based upon whom one is speaking with.
On one hand, expatriate businesspersons, and Saudis involved in business or government, in a first-hand position to either implement the reforms, or required to adjust their business practices to become compliant with the new rules and regulations, tend to view them as meaningful and serious. Some of course are more or less optimistic about the chances for success than others. There are also strong (and valid) criticisms being made of specific aspects of Vision 2030. Yet nearly everyone from this group acknowledges that what the government is doing is a substantive and noble attempt to solve fundamental economic problems.
Conversely, many foreign journalists, academics and think-tank researchers, who have an influential role in shaping media commentary about the Kingdom, but generally have spent far less, if any time in Saudi Arabia, tend to downplay the significance of Vision 2030. With these groups, there is more focus on other issues, perhaps the lack of elections, or the human rights situation, or whether or not women can drive at this very moment. There is even a clear lack of awareness of some basic facts if not the existence itself of ongoing Saudi reform programs. It can sometimes seem the two groups are viewing different countries.
A February 2016 article in The Atlantic, a respected establishment publication, illustrates this tendency. Titled “Washington Should Prepare for Saudi Arabia’s Collapse”, two scholars, neither known for any particular expertise on the Kingdom, made this bold claim. Yet they appeared to be unaware of Riyadh’s reform agenda because it is not mentioned in the article.
President Obama, or at least the people advising him on Saudi Arabia, fall into this second group. In a detailed interview in The Atlantic last March, for example, he found time to heavily criticize the Saudi regime, claiming that they “oppress half the population,” yet had nothing to say about their reform agenda.
Predicting what the President-Elect will actually do in terms of foreign relations is currently a national obsession but there is reason to believe that, as a results-oriented businessperson, he will “get” what the Saudis are trying to do.
In particular, Saudi Arabia’s steps to reform labor markets may resonate with Trump. As the Saudi-US Trade Group (SUSTG) has been covering since 2011, Riyadh has been pursuing a series of labor reforms that entail a variety of creative tactics to regain control over legal and illegal immigration to address the political problem of unemployment of Saudi nationals. What government officials have been doing is very similar to Trump’s proposed immigration plan.
It is therefore not difficult to imagine a situation where Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s business oriented framing of the Vision 2030 plan including the issues of privatization and reducing government spending will be seen as something noteworthy by the new President in comparison to President Obama who did not, perhaps due to his lack of experience in the private sector.
#2 – President Trump’s Position on Iran may offer a chance to “reset” the Gulf Security situation more agreeable to Saudi Arabia
The Trump administration’s exact position towards the Iran nuclear deal is yet to be determined, but all indications are that the President-Elect will be more receptive to the Kingdom’s concerns about Iranian behavior in the region. During the campaign, for example, Mr. Trump advocated one of the most nuanced positions of any of the candidates from either Party. He stated that:
“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘We’re going to rip up the deal.’ It’s very tough to do [that] … Because I’m a deal person. And when I make deals … I will police that deal. You know, I’ve taken over some bad contracts. I buy contracts where people screwed up, and they have bad contracts. But I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that, even if they’re bad, I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance. … And the problem is, by the time I got in there, they will have already received the $150 billion.”
Mr. Trump’s willingness to re-evaluate the Iran deal is important because it allows for a recalibration of the Gulf security situation that had been disrupted by President Obama. What supporters of the deal often forget is that the Sunni Gulf countries have long felt insecure with regard to Iran. Not only because Iranians significantly outnumber the total population of the Gulf states but also because they have endured decades of what they see as destabilizing and provocative behavior on the part of the Iranian regime.
Certain policies that the Saudis have taken in the region, such as the Yemen War, didn’t just happen in a vacuum, but are driven by a sense of Iranian encroachment that leads them to conclude they must take action in the absence of U.S. involvement. The way to limit the Saudi temptation to engage in such military adventures is to make sure they Saudis truly feel secure and that America has their back.
Clearly, the Saudis may not like some elements of the Trump Administration’s Middle East policies. This would include a possible attempt to rebuild the US relationship with Russia, a strong supporter of the Assad regime and the Iranians, arch-foe of the Saudis.
Yet whatever position on Iran taken, it is hard to imagine, for example, a President Trump suggesting the Saudis need to “find an effective way to share the neighborhood with the Iranians” as President Obama did in his Atlantic interview. Moreover, with the appointment of General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, long known for being critical of Iran, the Saudis can safely assume that the Trump administration will be less tolerant of Tehran’s antics across the region.
#3 Mr. Trump Will Be Less Burdened by a so-called Liberal Agenda on Foreign Policy
Mr. Trump’s business-oriented worldview means that in ways that matter to the US-Saudi relationship, he is less likely to dwell on certain Saudi religious or cultural practices than those from a more ideologically liberal perspective.
Take this statement he made during the campaign, according to The UK-based Independent:
Speaking at a rally in New Hampshire, where he has been the frontrunner since launching his Presidential campaign, the outspoken Republican candidate tried to use the decision to wear full face veils as evidence that the US should stop intervening in the Middle East:
“I saw a woman interviewed. They said, ‘We want to wear them, we’ve worn them for a thousand years. Why would anybody tell us not?’ They want to!” he told the audience. “What the hell are we getting involved for?
The strongly anti-Trump National Review declared that in “yet another demonstration of his unsuitability for office, Donald Trump extolled the wearing of burqas and niqabs at length.” What this campaign statement really shows is how the incoming President by instinct is less likely to make issues like human rights, or women driving, the core part of discussions with Saudi leaders during his Presidency. When President Obama and the authors of the article cited above, look at Saudi Arabia, they tend to dwell on the negatives. It is more likely, that Mr. Trump will look at Saudi Arabia, see the real reform they are trying to implement, and see a Glass Half full view.
At a time of great regional instability and uncertainty, one thing seems clear: with the election of Donald J. Trump as the next US President, there is real potential for the US and Saudi Arabia to open up a new and productive chapter in it’s long relationship.
Nathan Field spent 2 years as part of the management team of a $1 billion engineering project in Saudi Arabia and is the co-founder of Industry Arabic, and a contributor to SUSTG. Follow him on Twitter at @nathanrfield1