Since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the United States and Saudi Arabia have engaged in a complicated relationship of protection, support, and need despite stark differences in cultural values and norms of behavior. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has presented its share of challenges for American leaders of both parties, from Nixon to Obama, but the Trump administration had initially brought the U.S. and Saudi governments far closer during the businessman’s first two years in office. This was done under cascading criticism about the Saudi involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Trump navigated unsettled waters throughout 2019 while raising tension between the U.S. and Iran while also watching a steady decline in the oil market. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the intricacies of the U.S. role in a changing Middle East.
As Trump continues to emphasize the traditional ‘big brother’ role of the U.S. with regard to the Kingdom, the Saudi Prince bin Salman is pressing forward with his bold ‘Vision 2030’ plan for his nation. According to the official Saudi government summary, ‘Vision 2030’ will make Saudi Arabia a country with ‘a vibrant society, a thriving economy, and an ambitious nation’.[i] With a desire to differentiate its economy and expand its role on the global stage, the structure of Saudi-U.S. relations seems in flux. The question remains about where the two nations go from this point forward, and what will transpire should Trump lose in his bid for re-election in 2020, and so far, Joe Biden, the pre-emptive Democratic nominee, is yet to offer any talking points on the matter.
Selective Ignorance or Something Worse?
The world has learned that Donald Trump views global events through an economic lens and is often unsteady on his feet when discussing their more political dimensions. Twice within the month of July 2019, the leader of the United States revealed a frightening lack of knowledge about global atrocities. While meeting with victims of religious persecution from nations around the world, including China, Iran, and Myanmar, Trump was asked about his plans to curtail the violence against Rohingya Muslims in the former British colony, previously known as Burma. Trump’s response of ‘where is that?’ should have generated a voluminous shockwave of concern within the U.S. and around the world, but this was lost in the daily noise of the Trump administration. In addition to his frequent tweets, barely two days later, the president became fixated on the fact that Yazidi Nadia Murad, visiting the White House to explain the suffering of religious groups under ISIS attack, won the Nobel Peace Prize and actually asked the celebrated activist about the location of her family after she initially explained their murder at the hands of ISIS members.[ii]
The apparent lack of knowledge about the events of the Middle East is frightening enough, but the apparent lack of empathy only exacerbates a policy with Saudi Arabia that is allowing for the atrocities in Yemen to continue into the early summer of 2020, thus continuing what some would call the world’s most horrific humanitarian crisis in recent history. Although the Saudis have put forth a cease-fire plan that would include joint cooperation between Saudi-supported, ousted leader Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and separatist group, Southern Transitional Council (STC), no formal agreement has been reached and COVID-19 creates even broader concerns for a nation already decimated by six years of blood-soaked civil war. The United States views Saudi Arabia as a buffer for the increasing hegemonic goals of Iran, but by bolstering the Kingdom’s position in the region, the U.S. is issuing a de facto statement to Iran that the United States see Saudi Arabia as the most stable and significant country in the region. The ongoing support of Saudi Arabia through arms sales is concurrent with the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the multinational Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran create a dangerous environment for the entire Middle East, and Saudi Arabia would be in the center of any such future clash.
Varying the U.S. Approach
The United States has shown an increasingly hawkish mentality towards Iran, and the onset of COVID-19 has not fully quelled both actions and rhetoric coming out of Washington. Only a year ago, in a report released in July 2019 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, half of U.S. citizens believed that selling weapons to Saudi Arabia did not make the United States safer, and were concerned about the relationship between the U.S. and the Kingdom.[iii] It is remarkable to see what a difference a year makes, as the brutal killing and dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi is no longer mentioned by U.S. mass media, and the volatility of the Middle East has been replaced by stories about the politicization of wearing face masks, the fear of a massive recession, and the return of professional sports.
It is exactly these reasons that should remind all citizens to remain aware of international affairs and the ongoing withering of the Unites States’ influence around the world. A spring 2020 Pew Research Center Poll that surveyed thirty-two nations found that sixty-four percent of those questioned did not believe in U.S. leadership in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and those surveyed felt that the U.S. would not ‘do the right thing in world affairs’.[iv] While the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, it will eventually be controlled and thus, the attention of the world will turn back to topics other than vaccines and test results. However, while much of the world continues to fight against the illness and revise quarantine restrictions, the ongoing relationship between Washington and Riyadh demands persistent monitoring. Lying at the center of the U.S.-Saudi friendship is the persistent questions of solving the question of Iran. John Bolton may be out as National Security Advisor and promoting his new tell-all text, but the residue of his approach to Iran lingers. Based on the recent passage of increased sanctions, the U.S. will continue to alienate Iran, thus intensifying the proxy war still raging in Yemen, costing more innocent lives, and all without doing anything to add security to the region.
Many have become accustomed to confusing language coming from the White House, but recent actions have been perplexing as well. While Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, spoke of combating Iranian ‘aggression’, the Trump administration still plans to remove two anti-Patriot missile batteries from the Kingdom.[v] This action is coming from Washington despite announcing another arms deal with Riyadh that defies the advice of Congressional leaders.[vi] This decision to increase military sales to the Kingdom is the second in less than a year, as Congress was not able to override the president’s veto of a bill that would have blocked arms sales to Saudi Arabia last summer.[vii] With so many mixed messages, it is not a surprise that the Saudis are planning for a post-U.S. world by increasing its relationship with China and Russia, as witnessed by a significant spike in Chinese oil purchases during the recent drop in international crude prices.[viii]
The United States is not without options with regard to Saudi Arabia and efforts to minimize potential uprisings in the region. Firstly, the current administration must be more vocal in their support for Saudi actions aimed to broker some level of peace concerning the events in Yemen. Additionally, easing sanctions on Iran and de-escalating the seething anger between the U.S. and Iran would be instrumental is lowering the fear of a significant incident in the Strait of Hormuz. The United States must learn that 2020 has ushered in a new world and demonstrated how quickly international affairs can change; the delayed response to the COVID-19 outbreak placed the U.S. in a vulnerable position from which it must attempt to recover quickly. This means winning back the trust of traditional NATO and EU allies as well as presenting strength and civility as a mollifying presence rather than a pugnacious one in the Middle East. Hinging all of this is the relationship with Saudi Arabia. The first six months of 2020 has brought almost unimaginable suffering, both physically and financially, and recovery from the pandemic will be neither easy nor swift; however, unless the U.S. finds a consistent message with Riyadh, by the time people finally leave their homes for a return to a semblance of their former lives, we all may have missed the seismic shifts in global relationships.
[ii] C. Itkowitz, ‘A Yazidi woman from Iraq told Trump that ISIS killed her family. ‘Where are they now?’ he asked‘, [website], 19 July 2019, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/?utm_term=.a7d127962378>
[iii] D. Smeltz, K. Friedhoff, C. Kafura, B. Helm, ‘Americans Consider US Arms Sales a Hazard to US Security’, [website], 10 July 2019, <https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/publication/lcc/americans-consider-us-arms-sales-hazard-us-security>
[iv] G. Santos Relos, ‘International confidence in US leadership plummets under Trump, especially during the war against the coronavirus pandemic’, [website], 24 June 2020, <https://www.asianjournal.com/features/opinion-editorial-columnists/international-confidence-in-us-leadership-plummets-under-trump-especially-during-the-war-against-the-coronavirus-pandemic>
[v] Aljazeera and News Agencies, ‘Trump, Saudi King Salman reaffirm strong ‘defence partnership’, [website], 9 May 2020, <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/trump-saudi-king-salman-reaffirm-strong-defence-partnership-200509061822421.html>
[vi] C. Edmondson, ‘Trump Officials Consider Defying Congress to Sell More Weapons to Saudi Arabia’, [website], 28 May 2020, <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/28/us/politics/congress-saudi-arabia-arms-sales.html>
[vii] The Associated Press, ‘Senate fails to override Trump vetoes on stopping Saudi weapons sales’, [website], 30 July 2019, <https://www.cbsnews.com/news/senate-fails-to-override-trump-vetoes-on-stopping-saudi-weapons-sales/
[viii] H, A Khan, ‘The oil and coronavirus crises may hasten US geopolitical decline’, [website], 13 June 2020, <https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/oil-coronavirus-pandemic-complexities-geopolitics-200610084759897.html>