New winds are blowing from Washington, and the Saudis, like Israel, believe they are far more favorable than those that prevailed under the Obama administration.
Saudi officials were so ebullient about a meeting at the White House between Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Donald Trump Tuesday that they praised the US president as a “true friend of Muslims who will serve the Muslim world in an unimaginable manner.”
The meeting with Trump was billed by the Saudis as a turning point in relations.
“Relations had undergone a period of differences of opinion. However, today’s meeting has put things on the right track, and marked a significant shift in relations across all political, military, security and economic fields,” a senior adviser to the deputy crown prince told Bloomberg. He added: “All of this is due to President Trump’s great understanding of the importance of relations and his clear sight of the problems in the region.”
While Trump is unpopular in much of the world, he has already gained the admiration of Saudi officials for his administration’s pugnacious stance toward Iran, Riyadh’s rival for regional primacy and main threat. The hopes are that he will reverse policies of the Obama administration seen by Riyadh as undermining its regional standing and boosting the influence of Iran. In particular, the 2015 nuclear deal raised Saudi fears that Washington was pursuing rapprochement with Tehran at its expense.
“The Saudis want from Trump a much more confrontational, harder line on Iran’s interference in Arab affairs, whether in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or anywhere else in the Arab world,” said Brandon Friedman, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle East Studies. “The Saudis biggest concern is the way Iran gets power beyond its borders, and anything Trump does to push back on that Iranian behavior is what the Saudis are looking for.”
Under Obama, there had been a sense among the Saudis that the US at times projected weakness, as when the president failed in 2013 to keep a vow to respond militarily if the Assad regime used chemical weapons. But above and beyond that, the Saudis felt they were not being treated in accordance with their geopolitical importance.
“There was a lack of the trust, confidence and intimacy there had been before Obama, and the US administration flirted so much with Iran. Obama seemed really soft on Iran, and that irked the Saudis,” said Gabriel Ben-Dor, a Middle East specialist at the University of Haifa.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir highlighted the Iranian threat during a speech last month at the Munich Security Conference, saying Tehran was trying to destroy Saudi Arabia and constitutes “the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.” Its subversion, he said, could be found across the region: shipping missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, backing Shi’a militias to support Bashar Assad and planting terrorist cells in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.”
What has been so reassuring to the Saudis and what is raising hopes for a honeymoon with Washington is that the Trump administration is casting Iran in a similar light. On February 2, then-national security adviser Michael Flynn said he was “putting Iran on notice,” in reaction to an Iranian missile test and an attack on a Saudi warship by Houthi rebels in Yemen. And new sanctions were quickly slapped on Iran over the missile test. Trump has termed Iran “No. 1 in terror,” and Secretary of Defense James Mattis used the same description as Jubeir, calling Iran “the biggest sponsor of state terror.”
“The president and the deputy crown prince share the same views on the gravity of the Iranian expansionist moves in the region,” said the senior adviser to the deputy crown prince after Tuesday’s meeting.
In the view of Joshua Teitelbaum, professor in the department of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the Saudis are pinning hopes on Trump, just like Israel is.
“Even though Israel and Saudi Arabia still don’t know exactly where Trump is going, the sense is that Trump sees things more similarly to how Israel and Saudi Arabia see it. Obama wanted to have a balance between Sunnis and Shi’ites. His idea was there are Sunni terrorists and Shi’ite terrorists, and there is no reason to support one over the other. The Saudis saw this as a pro-Iranian shift. Meanwhile, Israel saw the administration acknowledging Iranian power in the region and viewing Iran is a regional power equal to Saudi Arabia. The expectation of Israel and Saudi Arabia is that now things will go back to seeing Israel and Saudi Arabia as the main powers in the region and not Iran.”
But even with a new closening of US-Saudi ties, Ben-Dor does not believe the Saudis would respond positively to any US prodding that they take steps to engage in a public relationship with Israel, because doing so would provoke public opinion against the regime.
“Relations with Israel will continue to be surreptitious, and Saudi involvement in any major regional conference will be conditional on the centrality of the Palestinian issue,” he said.