March 16, 2017 | Policy Brief

Saudi Arabia’s Charm Offensive with New U.S. President

March 16, 2017 | Policy Brief

Saudi Arabia’s Charm Offensive with New U.S. President

Saudi Arabia’s most powerful prince, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, became the first Arab leader to meet in the White House on Tuesday with President Donald Trump, who was accompanied by White House advisors but not his secretaries of state or defense. The delegations did not take questions from reporters, but they did issue public readouts, and the content of those documents suggests that the U.S.-Saudi alliance is already being rewritten by the new personalities in charge.

The Saudi delegation’s readout was especially revealing for a country that usually issues opaque, telegraphic accounts of its senior meetings. It adopted such a positive tone that its language verged on adulation, calling the event a “historic turning point” thanks to the “great understanding” and “clear sight” of a president who is bringing “great changes” to America. In contrast to scholarly observers of U.S.-Saudi relations, who characterize bilateral ties as increasingly transactional, both sides described the alliance as a “strategic” partnership with enormous prospects for new cooperation in every area.

Prince Mohammed even vouched for Trump’s controversial immigration executive order, calling it a “vital and urgent precaution” that the kingdom does not see as discriminatory. He also vouched for the president himself, remarking that Trump “expressed his deep respect for the [r]eligion of Islam.” The prince called Trump “a true friend of Muslims” whose commitment to achieving the Muslim world’s interests is “unprecedented.” He also described negative portrayals of Trump’s posture toward Muslims as scurrilous.

The White House readout of the meeting stated that new cooperation with Riyadh could directly create up to one million American jobs, as well as millions more indirect American jobs, and an unspecified number of jobs in the kingdom. The U.S. also voiced support for creating joint working groups on energy, industry, infrastructure, and technology, with the goal of generating $200 billion in new investments by the end of Trump’s term.

Iran predictably featured prominently in the discussion. According to the White House, both leaders seek strict enforcement of the Iran nuclear deal and called for “confronting Iran’s destabilizing regional activities.” More striking was the Saudi side’s hint that the nuclear accord could drive a regional nuclear cascade as its restrictions expire. But while the Saudi team issued many criticisms of Iran – claiming, for example, that Tehran sponsors the Islamic State and seeks to conquer Mecca – there was no sign the meeting covered any new proposals for how to cooperate against Iran’s aggression.

Remarkably, other security issues that have been pivotal in past bilateral summits barely seemed to come up, at least judging by these two readouts. Combatting the Islamic State was only noted in passing. The ongoing Saudi war in Yemen was only noted with a reference to how Saudi Arabia wishes it had done more to build a barrier along its southern border, as Trump’s administration now seeks to do. The war in Syria was not mentioned at all.

These omissions do not reflect a waning Saudi interest in these topics. Rather, they appear to be a strategic part of a Saudi charm offensive with the new president. These issues cannot be tabled for long, however. Indeed, they are key to the president’s expansive pledges to roll back IS, al-Qaeda, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidAWeinberg.