It is difficult to imagine a US president more embattled than Donald J. Trump right now. Mired in controversy, he has been dogged by domestic scandals for the past several weeks.
And so it goes that president Trump embarks on his first official tour overseas, not as a leader fresh off the greatest upset in US political history, but as a man without an umbrella fleeing a deluge for a desert.
Donald Trump’s unconventional choice of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican in Rome for his first trip abroad should not actually have surprised anyone. During his first four months in office, the president has managed to antagonize many of America’s closest allies, including Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia. A reset with Russia may have seemed plausible a few months ago, but in the current, conspiracy-laden political environment, it is all but impossible.
And so instead he will visit the Gulf kingdom. Trump’s team—from Defense and State to Commerce and Treasury—have been meeting with Saudi officials for months. In March, the powerful Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had a face-to-face with Trump at the White House in what he labeled a “historical turning point” in the US-Saudi relationship.
Generally speaking, there is a real belief that a stronger alliance with the Arab Gulf’s most powerful state will help the Trump administration advance several of its most high-profile public policy goals: defeating ISIL, containing Iran, and bringing investment and jobs back home to the United States.
“I think this is the most dramatic aspect of our new foreign policy in the Middle East, the pivoting or resetting, if you will, of the relations with the Gulf countries,” said Tim Lenderking, deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Gulf affairs, at a recent conference. “And so you do find that evidenced, in a very dramatic way, by the president’s decision to make Riyadh his first stop on an overseas visit.”
But as Trump evades the growing scandal unfolding in Washington, he may discover that wading into the complexity in the Middle East gets him further from the promises that got him elected and closer to involvement in another deeply unpopular war.
Despite campaigning on his ”America First” approach, Trump has increasingly adopted the perspective of US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are pushing for a more aggressive US posture in the region, especially vis-a-vis Iran. (It is unclear how simultaneously fighting terrorism in the region while keeping the US out of full-scale warfare differs at all from Obama’s policy in the region.)
For two years, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of its allies have been involved in a conflict in the neighboring state of Yemen. Dubbed the forgotten war by Amnesty International, the violence has been largely eclipsed by the much deadlier conflict in Syria. The Saudis have spent much of this time trying to solicit US help, something the Trump administration has been quietly increasing since January.
Much like Syria, the fate of Yemen is important for regional and global security. It is now a frontline in a proxy war between Iran, the Gulf Arabs, and the US, as well as a bastion for Al-Qaeda operatives planning attacks on the West.
Yemen’s slow dissent into civil war began in 2011, as the Middle East was engulfed by revolution. After Yemen’s longstanding authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down in 2012, the internationally mediated political transition faltered and eventually collapsed. But it wasn’t until a rebel group known as the Houthis, in alliance with the disgruntled Saleh and his supporters, made sweeping military gains in 2014 that Saudi Arabia itself felt threatened.
The Houthis are part of a Shiite Muslim sect from Yemen’s mountainous northern region and have been engaged in conflict with the central government since the early 2000s. Saudi Arabia believes they are part of Iran’s plan to gain supremacy in the region. The Saudis have accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with weapons as well as political and financial support, and have conducted a prolonged bombing campaign in Yemen that has killed around 10,000 people and brought much of the country to the brink of famine.
For years, the Obama administration tried to avoid taking on a direct role in the conflict while also continuing to provide the Saudis with aircraft and material support.
“The Obama administration was a reluctant partner in the war,” says April Longley Alley, a Yemen specialist at the International Crisis Group. “But ultimately US support for the Saudi war in Yemen seemed to be part of the price the Obama administration was willing to pay for antagonizing Saudi Arabia over the Iranian nuclear deal.”
Obama tried to push the Gulf states to “share the neighborhood” with Iran, a position that the Arabs felt was naïve. Saudi Arabia remains convinced that the Iranian regime is responsible for fostering sectarian unrest. Saudi Arabia also believes that, through the use of proxies, Iran has made significant influence in recent years, in Iraq, Syria, and now Yemen.
While Syria is less of a direct threat, the loss of Iraq to the immediate north and potential loss of Yemen to the immediate south has Saudi feeling boxed in and existentially vulnerable. To put it in another context, an Iranian Yemen is to Saudi what a Soviet Cuba was to the US.
The regime’s paranoia is palpable and the coalition’s quagmire in Yemen is costing them billions at a time when sustained, low oil prices means they can ill afford it. Against this backdrop, Saudi officials have pinned their hopes on the trio of Trump, secretary of defense Jim Mattis and national security advisor H.R. McMaster. Both general Mattis and general McMaster served in Iraq and witnessed first-hand Iranian influence.
In a 2014 speech (pdf), Mattis blasted Iranian aggression and said that the security of the Arab Gulf was an international responsibility. “So for our own interests we must remain engaged—economically, diplomatically, and [in] security—with the troubled Middle East,” Mattis stated.
It is not clear how far the US is willing to go in support of the Saudi coalition, but it will most likely continue to be limited to increased intelligence sharing and logistical support, in addition to supplying arms.
While Mattis has pushed for greater military support, he has also called for a political solution to the conflict, acknowledging that this war will not be won by bombs alone.
Any escalation in support of Saudi interests in Yemen will have consequences that extend far beyond the conflict, however. For one thing, such a move would send a clear message to Iran, reaffirm a decades-old security framework in the Arab Gulf, and tilt the balance of power in Trump’s White House away from the populist-isolationist wing of Steve Bannon and towards Mattis’ globally engaged Defense Department. (And of course, there are financial relationships to consider.)
It’s possible there could even be implications for the Arab-Israeli peace process.
In exchange for reassurances and commitments from the US security, Trump will likely seek greater Saudi support in the fight against terrorism. He may also ask the Saudis to increase their investments in the US. The Saudis are already the largest importer of US weapons in the world, followed closely by the United Arab Emirates, a country of just over 1 million citizens with a standing army in the tens of thousands.
“I think the Saudis are very flattered and happy that Trump has decided to use them to make a point: that Saudi Arabia is the leading country in the region,” says Jean-Francois Seznec, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC and an expert on the Gulf. “I think the Saudis know that is going to cost them, money wise. They are ready for that.”
As for one of the biggest elephants in the room, the Saudis will presumably chalk up Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric to good old-fashioned American politicking. And they will hope that despite the rumblings of impeachment back in the US, this president’s term is not going to end anytime soon.