by Giorgio Cafiero and Joshua Hodge
The Saudi leadership is coming to terms with the possibility of Donald Trump becoming America’s 45th president. From Riyadh’s perspective, a Trump presidency represents many risks stemming from countless unknown variables surrounding the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee. It appears that this is exactly what Trump wants. In the real estate mogul’s words, “We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable.”
Like many political issues that the “wild card” GOP candidate has addressed, Trump’s position on the U.S.-Saudi alliance is unclear. Last August, Trump declared that he “wasn’t a big fan” of the Saudis, maintaining that the U.S. spends too much money backing Riyadh. “Well, you know, the primary reason we’re with Saudi Arabia is because we need the oil. Now we don’t need the oil so much.” Trump continued, “Look, Saudi Arabia is going to be in big trouble pretty soon and they’re going to need help… We get nothing for it and they’re making a billion dollars a day.”
Earlier this year, however, Trump told Fox News that Iran was on a path toward developing nuclear weapons and that the Iranians “are looking to go into Saudi Arabia.” When asked how his administration would handle a hypothetical war between Riyadh and Tehran, the billionaire responded, “I would want to protect Saudi Arabia.” Three months later Trump said that he was “not sure” that Saudi Arabia developing nuclear weapons “would be a bad thing” for America.
Although Trump’s style is likely causing much anxiety in Riyadh, the Saudi view of Trump is not entirely negative. There is hope in Riyadh that Obama’s successor will align the U.S. more closely to the kingdom. Some of Trump’s statements about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East suggest that his presidency could bring about this outcome, at least in certain areas.
Trump and Riyadh Intersect
Regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, which Trump believes to be “one of the most incompetent contracts,” the GOP candidate and the Al Saud rulers seem to share a negative view of the partial thaw in U.S.-Iran relations under Obama. Trump angered many on both sides of the aisle in Washington by calling for a more balanced approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet this is exactly what Riyadh officials have wanted from the U.S. for decades.
In late 2012, Trump stated that because Egypt became a “total mess” after the 2011 revolution, the U.S. “should have backed Mubarak instead of dropping him like a dog.” This sounded remarkably similar to Riyadh officials’ bitter remarks about Obama discarding the former Egyptian president and close Saudi ally like a “used Kleenex.”
In 2013, he chimed in as Mohammed Morsi’s opponents were on the streets protesting his presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood. “Millions are demonstrating in Egypt for the overthrow of Morsi. When’s Obama going to call for Morsi to resign, like he did with Mubarak?” Shortly after the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, which the Saudis warned the Bush administration against, Trump voiced his opposition to the war, calling it a major foreign policy blunder. Earlier this year he referred to the war as “a big, fat mistake”.
Trump Riles Riyadh
Yet Trump’s rhetoric from the campaign trail deeply disturbs many in the Arab world, especially regarding his language about Muslims. The real estate tycoon has pledged to suspend immigration to America from nations “where there is a proven history of terrorism” against the U.S., which presumably includes Saudi Arabia. Trump’s support for a so-called “Muslim ban” received criticism by members of the Saudi royal family and other Gulf Arab officials. In response, the GCC released a statement condemning Trump’s “hostile, racist and inhumane rhetoric against refugees in general and Muslims in particular.”
Wealthy Gulf Arab businessmen have threatened to withdraw their investments in America should Trump succeed Obama. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Middle East’s wealthiest individual, denounced Trump as “a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America.” The Republican presidential candidate responded via Twitter. “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed_Talal wants to control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money. Can’t do it when I get elected.”
But perhaps more concerning to Riyadh is Trump’s insistence that U.S. allies start paying Washington for defense. The Republican White House hopeful claims that the U.S. is defending Saudi Arabia and that he wants payment for continued protections. As part of his “America First” policy, Trump suggested that he would even consider halting oil purchases from the kingdom if it does not comply. Although the U.S. could potentially execute such a policy, given the decreased American consumption of oil from the Arabian Peninsula, to do so would most likely entail an accelerated Saudi economic pivot to China and other oil-thirsty Asian nations.
Trump additionally insists that the GCC countries do more to help the West deal with the region’s refugee crises. Gulf Arab officials contend that accepting a large inflow of refugees would create a host of problems related to assimilation challenges. However, Western proponents believe that the GCC would be a better fit for Arab/Muslim refugees due to geographic and religious factors. The alternative, as laid out by Trump, would be to make Gulf states pay for safe zones in Syria, a proposal that would have extensive monetary and manpower costs.
How the Saudis View Hillary
Although the kingdom has historically favored Republican presidents due to their ties with business and oil sectors, Riyadh likely views Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy agenda as far more predictable. Of course, the Al Saud rulers have much experience working with Clinton in her service as first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state, and they are more familiar with her politics. According to some analysts, the kingdom’s preference is evident in Saudi donations to the Clinton Foundation over the years. Although Clinton supported the Iranian nuclear deal’s passage last year, her statements on Syria suggest that she may significantly step up support for rebels fighting the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus, which Riyadh has been unsuccessfully urging the Obama administration to do.
However, some of Clinton’s words on the campaign trail have not sat well with the leadership in Riyadh. After the June 12 massacre in Orlando, which left 49 dead, Clinton called on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries to stop citizens from funding terrorist organizations. Reiterating her 2010 statement as secretary of state that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” Clinton’s remarks following the violence in Orlando created controversy. She declared, “It is long past time for the Saudis, the Qataris and the Kuwaitis and others to stop their citizens from funding extremist organizations.” Unsurprisingly, these statements upset Saudi and Kuwaiti officials who quickly condemned Clinton and defended their countries’ roles in the struggle against global terrorism.
In response to Clinton’s statement about three of America’s GCC allies, Trump wasted no time in attacking the former secretary of state for the Clinton Foundation’s ties to the kingdom. In a speech delivered one day after the massacre in Orlando, Trump championed himself as the real friend of the LGBT community. He cited his understanding of Saudi laws against homosexuality and Saudi donations to the Clinton Foundation as reasons for LGBT voters to support Trump.
The Role of the Islamic State
Extremists in the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) are also paying attention to the U.S. presidential race. Because IS has its eyes set on toppling the Saudi monarchy and seizing control of Mecca and Medina, the extremist group’s anti-Saudi propaganda often focuses on Riyadh’s close relationship with the U.S. If Trump triumphs on Election Day, IS’s narrative about Saudi complicity in America’s alleged “war against Islam” will gain likely gain momentum and lure more Saudi nationals to the group’s cause.
Although many Saudi leaders are likely counting down the days until Obama leaves the White House, officials in Riyadh certainly understand that neither a Trump nor Clinton presidency will immediately or fully resolve the issues fueling tension between America and the kingdom.
However, a Trump presidency could easily give rise to a whole host of new problems in the already troubled alliance. Like the leaders of many countries across the globe, Saudi officials find much about Trump that is highly objectionable and offensive. Yet the kingdom cannot dismiss the possibility of the outspoken billionaire stepping into the Oval Office next year.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt). Joshua Hodge is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics.