Donald Trump pursues closer ties to Gulf region

By Thomas Seibert, The Arab Weekly   |   March 20, 2017 at 4:01 PM
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March 20 (UPI) -- The Trump administration is eager to bolster U.S. alli­ances with its Arab part­ners as part of a double-edged policy to cooperate more closely with Sunni Muslim countries to push back against Iran and promote broader acceptance of Israel by Arab nations.

U.S. President Donald Trump hosted Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin ­Abdulaziz at the White House for talks that centered on strengthening po­litical and military ties. Prince Mo­hammed is also the Saudi defense minister and oversees a reform program called Vision 2030, which is designed to prepare the kingdom for a time when it can no longer rely as heavily on oil wealth.

Prince Mohammed's talks with Trump set the stage for visits by other Arab leaders in Washington in the coming weeks. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is expect­ed at the White House this month. Visits by Egyptian President Ab­del Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are in the works.

Arab countries were rattled by what they saw as an appeasement policy toward Iran by Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, and by Obama's refusal to launch mili­tary strikes in Syria despite the use of chemical weapons by Damas­cus. Analysts said one of the aims of Trump's meeting with Prince Mohammed was to reassure Arab countries that the United States had changed course.

The president's meeting with Prince Mohammed was part of a se­ries of contacts "intended to signal a new approach to the region and a much more sympathetic view of the concerns of the Gulf states than the U.S. attitudes that developed during the Obama administration," said Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and an ana­lyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Earlier telephone conversations between Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, were part of this initiative, Feierstein said.

The development comes at a time when the United States ap­pears to be stepping up its military engagement in the Gulf region. Quoting a U.S. Defense Department official, CNN reported that Trump had given military commanders more leeway to launch counterter­rorism missions in Yemen. The first military action ordered by Trump after taking office in January was a raid by U.S. elite troops against al-Qaida in Yemen that resulted in the death of 20 civilians and a U.S. Navy SEAL.

Stronger U.S. support against Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran in Yemen and elsewhere is a key issue in the rapprochement under Trump. His administration sees Tehran as the main threat to stabil­ity in the region and has signaled a tougher stance toward Iran.

"The United States shares the Saudi concerns about Iranian occu­pation of Arab lands and is already getting more involved, for example in Yemen," said Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser to Gulf State Ana­lytics, a consultancy in Washing­ton. "The aim is to reverse Iran's gains of recent years."

This support comes with a politi­cal price. Describing Trump's ap­proach as "transactional," Karasik said Washington would be looking for Saudi concessions regarding the kingdom's relations with Is­rael. Feierstein said Trump might be aiming to secure "Gulf recogni­tion of the state of Israel as part of a broader package of political, eco­nomic and security agreements."

Some analysts expressed doubts about Trump's plan. "The presi­dent is likely to find that his vision of U.S. interests, let alone strategy, doesn't mesh with that of the Ar­abs on whom he's relying," Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Wilson Center, and Richard Sokolsky, a former U.S. State Depart­ment official who works for the Carnegie Endowment for Interna­tional Peace, wrote in the Washing­ton Post on March 7. "In the end, the Arab states will be just as hard to corral as ever into doing what Trump wants."

Miller and Sokolsky cautioned that the United States "needs to keep its expectations low for work­ing closely with the Sunni Gulf states."

Washington sees Riyadh as a key player, whose transformation from the world's biggest oil exporter to a post-oil country will have far-reaching repercussions.

Karasik said the Trump admin­istration was likely to support the Vision 2030 program because the project carried immense sig­nificance for the Middle East and beyond. "A failure of Vision 2030 would have a dramatic impact on the stability of the region and glob­ally," he said. "Thus, America has a vested interest in seeing the Saudi Vision succeed. Failure is not an option."

After a more informal visit to the United States last year, Prince Mohammed's March trip was dedi­cated to concrete political issues, Karasik added. The fact that the deputy crown prince was visiting the United States at the same time King Salman was on a tour of Asian countries reflects Riyadh's new for­eign policy approach, Karasik said, which is based on the idea that "Saudi Arabia needs to get its mes­sage across on a global level."

This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.

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