by Thomas W. Lippman
Any evaluation of President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia must deal with two separate questions: how did he perform, and what did accomplish?
On the first, he did well. His meetings with the Saudis and leaders of other Muslim countries were the diplomatic equivalent of a bogey-free round of golf at one of the president’s clubs. The president showed that he is quite capable of navigating the tricky waters of a multinational conference. There were no provocative tweets, he apparently avoided any breaches of protocol, and he spoke in strong but positive language. At the key meeting on Sunday of the newly formed Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, he read his speech from a TelePrompter and stuck to a carefully worded script that was laudatory and complimentary of the assembled Muslim leaders. And despite his reputation for having a short attention span, he appeared to listen patiently and alertly to the remarks of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, his Saudi host, who told him, “Mr. President, we are brothers and friends.”
Even as he was telling the Muslim leaders in blunt language that their faith demands that they do more to stamp out the extremism in their societies that leads to terrorism, Trump avoided language that could be construed as denigrating Islam itself. It was probably the most statesman-like day the president has had since taking office in January. The Saudis clearly lapped it up as Trump told them what they wanted to hear about a bolstering the bilateral partnership and standing together against Iran.
They have made clear since January that they are pleased to have Trump in the White House instead of Barack Obama, whom they came to dislike. It is actually not surprising that Trump’s style and personality would be more appealing to the Saudis: one rich ruling family comfortable with another. The Saudis don’t say much these days about how eagerly they welcomed Obama when he replaced George W. Bush.
On the question of what tangible results Trump will bring home, the outcome is considerably less dramatic than indicated by the president’s glowing public statements on Sunday. It is, of course, too soon to know how the world’s Muslims will respond to Trump’s exhortations that they do more—in their own interest, and in accordance with their faith—to stamp out extremism. No doubt they will welcome his declaration that the United States “is eager to form closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce” with them as preferable to the anti-Muslim rhetoric of his campaign, but they will also want to see what actually happens, if anything. The president conspicuously did not say he would cancel his executive order seeking to halt travel and immigration from six Muslim countries.
More tangible is the enhancement of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, but there may be less than meets the eye in Trump’s glowing proclamations.
Perhaps most notable is what the president did not do that the Saudis and some of the other Gulf monarchies would have liked him do. He did not repudiate the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran, although officials of his administration have said they are reviewing it. He did not confer on Saudi Arabia the legal status of “major non-NATO ally,” which would give the kingdom greater access to military equipment and intelligence. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s tiny neighbor, is the only Arab country that holds such status, which puts it in the same category as Australia, Japan, and Israel. And Trump did not say he would ask Congress to revisit the law enacted last year that allows victims and families of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to sue the Saudi government—as some of them have done since that law, known as JASTA, was enacted over Obama’s veto.
In strategic terms, much of what Trump announced is a continuation of long-established U.S. policies, and some of the economic agreements he welcomed were in the works before he was elected.
Already in the Pipeline
The United States and Saudi Arabia have had an intricate, intimate strategic relationship since Harry Truman was president, and it has survived multiple crises over the decades because the two countries find each other useful. That relationship did not germinate on January 20, 20l7.
In February, shortly after Trump was inaugurated, the State Department issued a “Fact Sheet” noting that “The United States and Saudi Arabia have a longstanding security relationship.” According to that document, the kingdom is the biggest foreign buyer of U.S.-made weapons and military equipment, and the United States has long been the principal trainer of the Saudi military and security forces. The following month, after Trump met Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, the White House said that the two
reaffirmed their support for a strong, broad, and enduring strategic partnership based on a shared interest and commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East region. They directed their teams to explore additional steps across a broad range of political, military, security, economic, cultural, and social dimensions to further strengthen and elevate the United States-Saudi strategic relationship for the benefit of both countries. U.S. and Saudi officials intend to consult on additional steps to deepen commercial ties and promote investment, and to expand cooperation in the energy sector.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir acknowledged to reporters in Riyadh that a strategic partnership between his country and the United States is not news. He added that the two countries now want to move their relationship to “an even higher level,” involving issues of the economy, energy, and public health as well as security.
The president said he was “proud to announce that the nations here today will be signing an agreement to prevent the financing of terrorism called the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia and joined by every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.”
A commitment to crack down on the shipment of money to terrorist groups would indeed be a breakthrough for some of the countries Trump was addressing, but Saudi Arabia began sanitizing itself on this front while George W. Bush was president. Under the sponsorship of Bush and then Obama, Saudi Arabia gained admission to the Egmont Group, a sort of financial Interpol, an organizations of 152 countries that have committed themselves to ban terrorism financing and money laundering. The enforcement units of the member nations are the “trusted gateway” for sharing information to support this effort, according to the group’s website. After passing Egmont’s on-site inspections, Saudi Arabia was admitted in 2005. Several other Arab and Muslim states are also members, including Bahrain, Egypt, and Qatar.
No one asserts that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors have fully halted the shipment of cash by sympathetic individuals to violent groups, but as Trump acknowledged, some of the governments have long been on board. As long ago as 2005, for example, staff members of the late Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz were complaining that it had become so difficult to send money out of the country legally that the prince could not properly support a charity he had established to relieve drought in the Sahel.
Trump hailed agreements reached at this summit through which “the Kingdom will invest almost $400 billion in our two countries and create many thousands of jobs in America and Saudi Arabia.” The biggest component, he said, is “a $110 billion Saudi defense purchase.” That too is more of the same, and does not represent a breakthrough in the relationship, although some of the weapons to be delivered may be more sophisticated than in the past, possibly including the missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.
According to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service last September,
From FY2009 through FY2015, the United States concluded bilateral arms sale agreements worth more than $58 billion with the kingdom. Since March 2015, the U.S.-trained Saudi military has used U.S.-origin weaponry, U.S. logistical assistance, and shared intelligence in support of military operations in Yemen…Since late 2012, the Obama Administration has notified Congress of proposed Foreign Military Sales to Saudi Arabia with a potential value of more than $42 billion, including a proposed sale of Multi-Mission Surface Combatant Ships potentially worth more than $11.25 billion.
All those transactions were booked during the Obama administration.
Another component of Trump’s $400 billion investment package, announced separately on Saturday in New York, is the creation by the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, of “a new investment vehicle” dedicated to infrastructure. The fund is have $40 billion in capital of which Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund will put up half.
If this plan comes to fruition, it could represent an important step in Saudi Arabia’s effort to free itself from dependence on oil exports, but it will not come about because of any work by the Trump team. Blackstone said that so far it has reached only a “memorandum of understanding” with the Saudis, and that the negotiations began a year ago, before Trump had even become the Republican nominee for president.
It has long been common for diplomatic statements and communiqués to depict as important progress economic and diplomatic developments that had already been announced or were negotiated earlier. In that respect, at least, Donald Trump in Riyadh behaved exactly like many other U.S. presidents and world leaders.
Photo: Donald Trump arrives in Riyadh (Instagram)