What would have happened if Mother Nature had not ordained a three-day snowstorm sweeping over America’s east coast in mid-March? The blizzards and the howling winds kept German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s jet waiting in Berlin’s Flughafen Tegel «Otto Lilienthal» pending weather clearance to take off for Washington.
And it turned out to be a windfall for Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) who was offered the slot earmarked for Merkel. He took it gleefully. At a juncture when the rivalry for succession in Saudi Arabia remains acute, MbS seized a rare opportunity to showcase himself as Trump’s principal interlocutor.
Trump originally intended to give MbS only a short meet-and-greet, but with Merkel’s visit deferred, MbS was ushered into the Oval Office and went to have lunch with Trump in the White House state dining room. The imponderables in the US-Saudi relationship in the Trump era should not be overlooked.
Trump wants to reconfigure the relationship and make it relevant for his «America First» policies. Hopes are high in Riyadh too that Trump seeks to forge a warmer relationship with the kingdom. Clearly, both sides are seeking a renewal of the bilateral relationship.
However, a comparison of the Saudi and White House accounts of the talks between Trump and MbS reveals significant divergences in what each side is expecting from a «reset».
The Saudi account was euphoric by characterising the Trump-MbS meeting as a «historic turning point», which «put things right on track» – a «huge success», which marked «a significant shift in relations».
But the White House modestly appraised that the two sides «reaffirmed their support for a strong, broad, and enduring strategic partnership based on a shared interest and commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East region» and decided to «explore additional steps» to strengthen and elevate the ties.
The Saudi version insisted that MbS did some damage control by commending Trump as a «true friend of Muslims who will serve the Muslim world in an unimaginable manner». But White House ignored this princely praise.
While the Saudi version gave only marginal attention to the US-Saudi business ties, with emphasis on political and security issues, White House gave primacy to beneficial economic ties in the overall relationship. The energy sector, in particular, was highlighted.
The two countries will consult on «additional steps» to expand cooperation in the energy sector and «announced their determination» to strengthen cooperation in the energy fields both bilaterally and in the global market; they resolved to develop «unique initiatives» in energy, industry, infrastructure and technology worth potentially more than $200 billion in direct and indirect investments through the coming four-year period; and, they propose to hold bilateral consultations on energy issues that «enhances the growth of the global economy and limits supply disruption and market volatility».
Simply put, US oil companies seek to renew and consolidate their traditional pre-eminence in the Saudi oil industry in both upstream and downstream areas. The key words are: «growth of the world economy» (read low oil prices), «supply disruption» (read production cutback) and «market stability» (read steady price line and assured supply.)
Clearly, Trump throws out of the window the hypothesis that thanks to burgeoning shale oil industry, US’ dependence on petrodollar states in the Gulf is declining. Big Oil is back with a bang, with rising oil prices.
The bottom line is that Trump’s primary focus is on expanded economic cooperation that may hold the potential to create «as many as one million direct American jobs within the next four years, millions of indirect American jobs». Trump’s interest to engage Saudi Arabia in politics and geo-strategy will follow from this premise, not the other way around.
This becomes quite clear in regard of the projection of the situation around Iran in the Saudi and White House accounts. The Saudi version goes hammer and tong at Iran, stressing «how bad and dangerous» is the Iran nuclear deal, how it could only set the clock back «for a short period of time» in Tehran’s quest for making nuclear weapons and how the nuclear deal is triggering an arms race involving regional states who «will not accept any Iranian nuclear capacity».
The White House simply put behind the topic in a single crisp sentence to the effect that Trump and MbS «noted the importance of confronting Iran’s destabilising regional activities, while continuing to evaluate and strictly enforce» the nuclear deal.
Unsurprisingly, Tehran took the Trump-MbS meeting calmly – no knee-jerk reaction, no high-flown rhetoric, no paranoia, no xenophobia.
The fact of the matter is that despite anti-Iranian rhetoric, Trump administration is fighting the ISIS in Mosul with noticeably greater thoroughness than Obama’s dalliances had allowed, virtually ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ with militia groups that Iran trained, armed and equipped.
Tehran is figuring out that although Trump indeed had a choice to confront Iran in pursuance of his anti-Iranian rhetoric, but he is not yet exercising it.
Again, Trump remains indifferent toward the Saudi offer to dispatch troops to support the US’ Special Forces in Syria aimed at bolstering rebel proxy groups. All reports suggest that CIA has completely shut down arms supplies to the Syrian rebel groups, many of whom were Saudi proxies.
As regards Yemen, the US cannot but be aware that the stalemate has allowed al-Qaeda to create safe havens. Conceivably, an imperative need arises for Riyadh to change its tactic. Simon Henderson at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy noted that it is abundantly clear that the Saudi-led coalition «cannot retake Sana without catastrophic violence, great human suffering, and a legacy of long-term insurgency. The White House could ask pointed questions about how to restart meaningful negotiations».
Suffice it to say, Saudi expectations of a joint exercise with Trump to confront Iran appear to be far-fetched.
Therefore, in the final analysis, the resilience of the US-Saudi «reset» will depend on what both sides get out of it. Business can be the key to a deeper alliance and the two sides can find common ground over economic ties.
The bazaar gossip is that Saudis made an offer of $1 trillion dollar investment in the US during the coming decade. If so, Trump will certainly be interested. To be sure, Trump administration hopes that the New York Stock Exchange will be the main venue for the international listing for the planned partial sell-off of the Saudi state-owned Aramco oil company in 2018.
However, life is unpredictable, as the snowstorm ten days ago on the US east coast vividly showed. Things can change dramatically, depending on the fate of the 2016 legislation by the US Congress – Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (known as Jasta).
Earlier this week, US terror victims in the 9/11 attacks filed a suit in the federal court in New York under the Jasta claiming damages against the Saudi regime. Trump, ironically, was a strong supporter of Jasta, which Riyadh now would at least expect him to neuter. For Trump, it is a Hobson’s choice – Aramco or Jasta. He cannot have both.