President Donald Trump’s elaborate lunchtime meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammad bin Salman last week highlighted one of the great surprises of Trump-era foreign policy: in spite of a virulent campaign rhetoric that never wasted a chance to bash key U.S. allies, the new administration has turned out to be a boon for the Saudis.
After a tense relationship with the Obama White House, which was further poisoned by the Iran deal, Riyadh is now poised to regain its position as America’s foremost Middle Eastern ally. But the Kingdom is not putting all its eggs into one (US-made) basket.
On the face of it, the meeting was an important milestone for both sides. Prince Mohammad is the first leader from the Gulf states to have met with Trump, while the embattled White House surely appreciated the photo op in the same week its revised “Muslim ban” was once again rejected by the courts. Discussions at the meeting clearly included Iran, whose erstwhile rapprochement with the U.S. now appears dead and buried, but also covered the economic reforms the prince is pushing part of the larger Vision 2030 plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy. Mohammad took advantage of the opportunity to speak with Trump about trade and investment opportunities going in both directions.
On this front, Saudi Arabia already appears to have successfully tailored its message to a Trumpian audience: their promise to jointly invest $45 billion into a $100 billion investment into American tech firms with Japan’s SoftBank has already been praised by Trump as one of the early successes of his policies. This is a far cry from last year, when the U.S. Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act reduced the scope of sovereign immunity and allow families of those killed in the September 11th attacks to sue Saudi Arabia, to which the Saudis responded by threatening to sell U.S. assets worth $750 billion. That diplomatic dispute now appears over, as Mohammad bin Salman pursues his second U.S. visit in a year and the Saudi national oil company considers New York as a location for its initial public offering.
Washington is not the only Western capital rethinking its approach to the Saudi monarchy. Just one month after Trump’s election, British Prime Minister Theresa May attended the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Bahrain, meeting with regional leadership to cover the region’s touchstone topics: trade and security. May told GCC leaders she hoped to “forge a new trade arrangement for the whole of the Gulf area,” while several high-level UK delegations have visited the Gulf states in recent weeks and months.
The buzzwords may sound familiar, but there is a key distinction to be made between May-style and Trump-style outreach to Saudi Arabia and its neighbors. As Britain begins to trigger the Brexit process to break from the EU as early as spring of 2019, trade with the Gulf states forms a key pillar of May’s post-EU economic plans. The British government is no doubt hoping that boosting trade relationships with the Gulf monarchies will help offset the losses to be inflicted by the break with Europe, especially rich if Donald Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy ultimately ends up weakening the U.S. position in the region.
Despite the positive tones coming from these two key longtime partners, the Saudis are clearly hedging their bets. Sending his son Mohammad to reach out to the Trump administration, King Salman instead embarked on a month-long tour of Asia (where demand for Saudi oil is on the rise). His stops have been in Muslim-majority ASEAN members such as Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as China and Japan. The Saudi oil industry is competing with Iran and Russia to supply the growing demand for energy in Asia, which is expected to expand by one million barrels a day this year alone. Beyond oil, Saudi Arabia is looking toward Asia and particularly China to help diversify its oil-centric economy as opposed to focusing its attention entirely on the West.
On this front, Salman’s kingdom is probably in luck. His plans happen to align well with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” plan to strengthen China’s ties to countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The Chinese also have competition: visiting Tokyo, King Salman reaffirmed a longstanding relationship in which Japan has depended on Saudi Arabia to supply most of its oil demand for decades. The tour demonstrates Saudi intentions to move beyond its historically close relationship with the U.S. when it comes to soliciting outside help in jumpstarting a struggling economy and managing the Middle East’s explosive security risks.
Given the current course of the Trump administration, this is probably a sound strategy. Although Prince Mohammad was received warmly in Washington, Trump is still unpredictable and has repeatedly proven his readiness to break with decades-old policy consensus on foreign relations. The world is facing the most dangerous American presidency in decades, and every foreign government will be at pains to sort out its economic and diplomatic policy in the age of Trump. Where there is risk, though, there is also opportunity for America’s rivals: could China, for example, move to supplant the U.S. as the key Middle East powerbroker? Based on his travel itinerary, King Salman appears to be taking that question seriously.
*David Meijer is a senior security analyst based in Amsterdam specialized in trans-national contraband.