The March 21, 2018 press conference between US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) must rank among the most surreal encounters between two world leaders, and it did little to dispel the notion that Trump is a transactional president with little regard for diplomatic niceties. This was evident in July 2017, when he bragged to the Christian Broadcasting Network that he had made his May 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia conditional on the announcement of billions in commercial agreements and arms sales, claiming, “I said, you have to do that, otherwise I’m not going.” In his meeting with MBS this week, ten months after that visit, Trump produced a cardboard cutout of planned Saudi arms purchases and started reeling off the figures in front of the crown prince, who seemed both embarrassed and amused at the spectacle. At one point, however, MBS shook his head vigorously when the president turned to one sale and said, “…But if you look, in terms of dollars, $3 billion, $533 million, $525 million––that’s peanuts for you. You should have increased it.”
Saudi officials have celebrated the “renaissance” of a bilateral relationship that soured badly during the Obama Administration, with Arab News headlining their coverage of the White House visit with the phrase “United States” (just as the crown prince’s visit to London earlier in March was tagged “United Kingdoms”). In the same spirit, Arab News editor Faisal Abbas referred to “The Art of the Deal” and suggested that Saudi investment and support were pivotal to the president’s “America First” strategy and the creation of new skilled jobs for American workers. While there is much merit to these arguments, President Trump’s demeanor and tone during the public portion of his meeting with MBS appeared as if he treated his Saudi visitors as merely a source of money and opportunity. For a president who, three years before he took office in 2017, tweeted, “Tell Saudi Arabia and others that we want (demand) free oil for the next ten years or we will not protect their private Boeing 747s. Pay up!,” this ought to be neither new nor a surprise.
For decades, the bedrock of the United States’ relations with its political and security partners in the Gulf evolved far beyond a simple “oil-for-security” equation, to which the media sometimes reduces it. The basis for bilateral ties with all six Gulf states has become institutionalized since the 1980s and—ironically, in view of Gulf rulers’ poor personal chemistry with President Obama—the Obama Administration did more than its predecessors to complement bilateral US links with individual Gulf states with stronger US ties to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a bloc. In March 2012, the Obama Administration created a GCC-US Strategic Cooperation Forum and at its 2013 ministerial meeting launched a joint US-GCC Security Committee to address issues of common interest such as counterterrorism. A further breakthrough came in December 2013 when President Obama issued a presidential determination that made it possible, for the first time, for the United States to sell arms to the GCC as a bloc.
Ironically, then, for all their denunciations of the Obama Administration—to which Trump himself alluded in his Oval Office comments—Obama did at least make efforts to work collectively with the GCC rather than just bilaterally with each individual state. The GCC has, of course, been weakened considerably by the ten-month standoff between three Gulf States—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—and Qatar, which erupted two days after Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May last year. Rumors that the United States is set to establish a trilateral security committee with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to work on countering Iran add weight to perceptions that the policy-making focus of Trump’s White House aligns more closely with Saudi and Emirati interests in the region, especially after the nomination of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. At present, US hopes for a sequential effort to mediate in the Gulf crisis, in advance of a planned Camp David summit that would seal a reconciliation deal, are now on hold.
Policy-making under the Trump Administration is clearly going to be highly transactional at the best of times. Although a bilateral relationship stripped of “values,” such as concerns for good governance or human rights, undoubtedly removes points of friction, the corollary is that President Trump is so unpredictable that he could one day turn against the Saudis or Emiratis just as he turned against the Qataris last summer. The weakening of the institutional bases of the US relationship leaves it more vulnerable to the whims of personality, and rational heads watching Trump’s behavior during the public portion of his meeting with MBS may not find it at all reassuring. Nor will Saudis necessarily be comfortable with the notion that large sums of state money—dismissed casually as “peanuts” by the president—will go to projects that provide jobs for American workers rather than in Saudi Arabia, where job creation is sorely needed to take the strain off the public sector and enable MBS to deliver on his Vision 2030 promises.