When President Trump talks about the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, he rarely mentions any Saudi role in achieving his stated objectives in the Middle East — bringing Iran to heel, forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and vanquishing Islamist terrorism.
Instead, he mostly talks about how much money the Saudis are spending here.
“They give us a lot of jobs. They give us a lot of business,” Trump said Saturday when asked about the CIA’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi leader, had ordered the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“They have truly been a spectacular ally in terms of jobs and economic development,” he said, referring primarily to Saudi arms purchases. “You know, I’m president; I have to take a lot of things into consideration.”
Trump may not be focused on counterterrorism cooperation and support for U.S. strategic aims in the region — the basis of the U.S.-Saudi relationship under his two immediate predecessors — but others in his administration are clearly concerned.
While the administration intends to “hold accountable” those responsible for Khashoggi’s death, it also needs to protect “the enormously important strategic interests the United States maintains” with Riyadh, including the crucial Saudi role in changing the behavior of Iran, “the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month.
Even as a growing bipartisan coalition in Congress has blamed Mohammed for Khashoggi’s death and demanded harsh punishment, some current and former U.S. officials, along with experts in the region, say that shared interests and deep roots will ensure that key bonds survive.
If the administration took “serious action” against the Saudis, Riyadh would “feel a need to somehow respond, but they’d want to do it in a way that would not escalate,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive matter. “Maybe they would not be as supportive in the oil market, or they might do a big arms purchase from the Russians or the Chinese. . . . We could live with that.”
Intelligence ties, the former official said, also would withstand the pressure. “What happens in almost every case I can think of, where a political relationship goes into a rocky time, is the intelligence relationship remains untouched . . . it’s too important to both countries.”
Others say that even if a serious breach occurred, there would be little to lose because both the Saudi money and the strategic cooperation are less substantive than they may appear.
“On the peace process, the administration wants the Saudis to deliver the Palestinians, through moral suasion or paying them off, or some combination,” said Anne Patterson, a career diplomat with long experience in the region who was President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for the Middle East.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, White House adviser and point man on the peace plan, has cultivated a personal relationship with Mohammed in hopes that he will lead the Arab world toward a new rapprochement with Israel, at the possible expense of a viable Palestinian state. Trump has already made moves in that direction with his recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and withdrawal of U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
But other Arab leaders have long considered those hopes naive, and they warn that any backing away from support for the Palestinians risks public outrage.
While Mohammed’s father, King Salman, may be content to allow his son to lead on most issues, he has repeatedly made his views on the peace process clear.
“The Palestinian cause is our main concern and will remain so until our brothers, the Palestinian people, gain all their legitimate rights, especially the establishment of their independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital,” Salman said Monday in his annual address to Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council.
Some Saudi actions have arguably undermined U.S. objectives in the region.
The administration objected last year when Mohammed, seeking to undermine the strength of Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to the kingdom, then held him captive and forced him to issue a public statement resigning his office. After Hariri was released and reinstated under international pressure, Hezbollah emerged stronger than ever.
On Iran, which both the U.S. administration and the rulers in Riyadh consider the region’s biggest threat, the Saudis “want to hold our coat while we fight,” Patterson said. The United States protects sea lanes in the region, through which Saudi oil is exported. U.S. air and seaborne forces fighting to defeat the Islamic State and weaken the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria operate from American bases in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. A significant U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia ended in 2003, when the Saudis asked the Americans to leave.
Administration plans to further challenge Iran by bringing the Persian Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman together in a new political and security alliance have so far foundered on Saudi and Emirati refusal to reestablish relations with Qatar. Along with Egypt and Bahrain, they broke relations with Qatar in May 2017, just days after Trump visited Riyadh. A summit that the administration hopes to convene among them to join hands with Washington against Tehran has been repeatedly scheduled and postponed.
Saudi Arabia’s conduct of its ongoing war in Yemen, in which Saudi airstrikes are blamed for causing thousands of civilian casualties and leading to a massive humanitarian disaster, have distracted attention from Iran’s aid to Yemeni Houthi rebels on the other side of the conflict. U.S. logistical and intelligence assistance to the Saudi effort — directed by Mohammed, who also serves as defense minister — has inflamed public and congressional outrage in the United States, a fire to which the Khashoggi killing has only added fuel.
Reports of recent progress in United Nations attempts to negotiate an end to the war have led some to believe that increased U.S. pressure would give Mohammed an excuse he may be looking for to end the conflict.
“I think the Saudis would get out tomorrow if the Iranians did,” the former senior intelligence official said. “I actually think the Saudis want the U.S. pressure to get out of Yemen, so that they can kind of blame it on somebody else, that they walked away.”
As for the money, a new report by William D. Hartung of the Center for International Policy, scheduled for release Tuesday, argues that the economic boost from arms sales that Trump has touted is a chimera. Although the president claimed to have signed deals for $110 billion worth of Saudi arms purchases during his visit to the kingdom last year, much of it was negotiated under the Obama administration, and many of the claimed deals were merely speculative. Final sales implemented during the Trump administration so far have totaled $14.5 billion.
At the same time, “Saudi arms sales support at most tens of thousands of jobs in the United States,” not the hundreds of thousands, or even a million, that Trump has variously claimed, reported Hartung, a researcher who has specialized in tracking the weapons trade.
Many jobs created by Saudi purchases of U.S. weaponry will ultimately be located in the kingdom itself rather than in this country, he wrote. Under Mohammed’s Vision 2030 economic diversification plan, all contracts must include 50 percent co-production clauses, with companies such as Raytheon and Boeing setting up manufacturing facilities in Saudi Arabia.