Richard Wagner considers the benefits and risks of the alliance with Saudi Arabia, and explains Trump’s strategy so far.
The alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia has been crucial since the First Gulf War in ’89. Since that time, Saudi Arabia has been essential to US interests in the Middle East. However, Saudi Arabia is a Kingdom, dominated by a rigid Islamic sect called “Wahhabism”, and has a history of promoting extremist Islamist ideology in many parts of the world. Furthermore, Osama bin Laden, though exiled, was nonetheless a Saudi, and his family is prominent in Saudi Arabia to this day.
The Uneasy Alliance
Despite this, the US/Saudi alliance holds strong primarily because of common interests. Both nations want to keep Iran contained, and prohibit a neo-Persian empire. This is of particular interest to Saudi Arabia. Likewise, both nations want to limit Russia’s involvement in the Middle East. In turn, the US relies on Saudi Arabia to help in the fight against radical Islamist terror groups. However, the majority of these groups that have attacked the US are either professed Sunni, such as ISIS, or clearly favor Sunni Islam, such as much of the Al Qaeda network and its various loosely affiliated and formerly affiliated factions.
The US clearly has better relations with Saudi Arabia than Iran. However, Saudi Arabia would seem to have more in common with the very radical Islamists that threaten the US than Iran. Saudi Arabia is a strictly Islamic state, even known to punish Shi’ites who too openly express their differences with Sunni Islam. Iran, is a predominantly Shi’ite nation, describing itself as an Islamic Republic. There is limited tolerance in Iran for other religions, mainly Jews, Christians, and the indigenous Zoroastrians. They do live under Islamic law in Iran, however, and their rights are limited.
Furthermore, Iran has actually proven effective at fighting the particular Islamist groups that threaten the US, particularly ISIS lately. However, Iran is also known to back other Islamist groups with a Shia bent, such as Hezbollah.
Iran could be an ally of the US. But the US also relies so heavily on Saudi Arabia, which wants no such alliance.
Trump isn’t making any significant changes to the status quo so far. The US has historically allied with the Saudis, counted on them to help suppress terror groups despite their mostly Sunni identity, and has returned the favor by sanctioning Iran and working to restrict any efforts at Iranian expansion into the rest of Arabia. The Joint Strategic Vision Declaration shows that Trump is maintaining this strategy. This may seem like just words on paper. However, President Trump proves his commitment to Saudi Arabia with the biggest arms deal in the history of our two nations. The arms deal is worth $110 billion, and in the spirit of “America First”, requires Saudi Arabia to hire American companies to manufacture these weapons.
Trump is not closing the door on Iran, however. One must consider Trump’s cabinet to understand this. Sec. of Defense Gen. Mattis is known to be particularly hawkish towards Iran, including advocating military force to stop Iran’s alleged efforts at nuclear proliferation. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson, however, seems more open to improving relations with Iran. As ABC reported, Tillerson recently stated “I’ve never shut off the phone to anyone that wants to talk or have a productive conversation,” he said. “At this point, I have no plans to call my counterpart in Iran, although in all likelihood we will talk at the right time.”
The Saudi Alliance is Fortified
The alliance with Saudi Arabia has been strained many times before, and was strained during much of the Obama administration. Fracking in the US has decreased American dependence on Saudi oil, as well as the price of oil worldwide. Furthermore, in Obama’s last few months, the US Congress was very close to passing a bill called the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” that would have allowed American’s who lost family in the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for their possible involvement. Such involvement, if it exists, would be nearly impossible to prove, making such a law toothless. It would, however, have provoked Saudi Arabia. Fortunately for the alliance, Pres. Obama vetoed this bill and Congress decided not to pursue it further.
Saudi Arabia was likely worried about how President Trump would handle the alliance. Given candidate Trump’s amicable, if not friendly attitude towards Russia and the Syrian Assad regime, Saudi Arabia was likely concerned that Trump would allow the scales to tip in favor of the Shi’ites.
However, this massive arms deal will prove crucial to strengthening the Sunni forces in Arabia, as well as Trump’s steadily improving relations with Turkey.
Eyes on Yemen
As Trump travels the Middle East, however, a bloody civil war rages in Yemen. It is proving to be a proxy war between the major Shi’ite and Sunni powers in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is naturally backing the Sunni forces in Yemen. However, Al Qaeda has become particularly powerful in Yemen in consequence. While the US backs Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia at least tacitly supports Al Qaeda in Yemen, Iran is backing the Shi’ite forces that are fighting against Al Qaeda. Once again, Iran battles the very radical Islamists that the US hopes to defeat, yet the US doesn’t want to risk tipping the scales in favor of Iran.
The arms deal with Saudi Arabia will likely also favor Sunni forces in Yemen. If some more moderate Sunnis can be found that are strong enough to rise to power at least with significant Saudi and US support, this would be ideal for the US/Saudi alliance. However, this is unlikely, and Saudi Arabia doesn’t seem that concerned about the dangers of a resurgent Al Qaeda.
In the months and years ahead, Saudi Arabia may find itself under increased pressure from the Trump administration to find a way to attack their Shi’ite enemies without helping dangerous Islamist groups in the process. While it will remain unspoken, Saudi Arabia also knows that the US could decide to improve relations with Iran, which has every reason to combat ISIS, Al Qaeda, and formerly Al Qaeda groups such as Hiyat Tahrir Al Sham in Syria.
Either way, Yemen is proving to be a crucial front in the ongoing conflict and shifting alliances in the Middle East.