The US-Saudi relations in the Trump era

Riyadh will give a warm welcome to Trump this weekend, but it will judge him based on his actions, not his promises.

Saudi Trump AP
Saudi Arabia had a prominent role in the national security doctrine of every US president, from Roosevelt to Obama, writes Altunhayyan [AP]

Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, will be the first foreign destination Donald Trump visits as the President of the United States on May 20. This trip signals that the Trump administration acknowledges Riyadh as a crucial US strategic partner in maintaining regional stability and world economic security.  Trump’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia should not come as a big surprise. 

Saudi Arabia had a prominent role in the national security doctrine of every US president, from Roosevelt to Obama. 

It all started in 1931, when the US officially recognised the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by extending full diplomatic recognition. The relations were bolstered when the US President Roosevelt met with the Saudi King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal of Egypt in 1945.  The US-Saudi relations were cemented on one core doctrine, oil for security.  The Saudis guaranteed continued access to oil, and President Roosevelt declared that the “defense of Saudi Arabia was vital to the defense of the United States”.

The US-Saudi relations, however, went through many ups and downs. Back in 2009, the Saudi leadership conveyed to John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s advisor on counter terrorism that “President Bush [junior] didn’t take his advice on dealing with issues in the region, and they found their problems compounded”.  The Saudis perceived that US policy in Iraq after the 2003 war was emboldening Iranian influence in Baghdad. According to documents released by Wikileaks, the Saudi king even said in his meeting with Brennan that “thank God for bringing Obama to the Presidency [to restore US credibility in the region]”.  Yet, the relations between the Kingdom and the US deteriorated even further under the Obama administration.

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The Saudis were angry when Obama told Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a long-time ally to Washington and Riyadh, that he needs to step-down during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. They were frustrated with Obama’s inaction on the “Assad must go” policy in Syria. They were wary that the Iran nuclear deal is the beginning of an American pivot toward their regional rival, Iran. And Obama’s statement that Saudi Arabia should “share the region” with Iran shredded the relations between the White House and Riyadh.  The Saudis felt that the US administration was abandoning its 70 years alliance with the Kingdom. 

A renewed partnership in the horizon

Now, with Trump’s visit to Riyadh, the hope to restore US commitments is revived in the Saudi capital.  The Saudi King, Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz, saidthis historic summit will hopefully lead to a new partnership “in confronting extremism and terrorism, disseminating the values of tolerance and coexistence, and bolstering security, stability and cooperation to serve the present and future of our peoples”.  But the Saudis are expecting more concrete actions from the Trump administration.

For the Trump administration, this visit is a chance for the president to roll-back on his anti-Islam campaign narrative and engage the Muslim world constructively to combat violent extremism in the region and beyond.


In Iraq, they want to see a more inclusive – and less-sectarian- government in Baghdad. In Syria, they support a political transition that will eventually lead to the departure of Bashar Al-Assad. In Yemen, they launched a military campaign to degrade the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel’s capabilities, and to restore the internationally recognized Hadi-led government. The Saudis will be pushing for a US support on these three fronts to circumvent the Iranian influence in the region. If these objectives were to be met, it will provide the Saudi government with more leverage to engage Tehran diplomatically. 

For Riyadh, it is equally important that the US continues its support in strengthening the Saudi military capabilities. Also the US should be firm in dealing with Iran’s destabilising activities in the region. This will reassure the Saudis and it will decrease the likelihood of a direct military confrontation with Iran. A war between the Saudis and Iranians will destabilise the region more, disrupt the oil markets, and possibly drag the US into a third major war in the region. Something the current US government would like to avoid. While Riyadh and Washington will not always – and should not expect to – have aligned policies in the region, I believe they do share similar strategic interests in many of the issues.

As for the Trump administration, this visit is a chance for the president to roll-back on his anti-Islam campaign narrative and engage the Muslim world constructively to combat violent extremism in the region and beyond.  Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and Al-Qaeda brought more harm to Muslims than anyone else.  The US and Saudis as well as the other Muslim leaders have a shared goal in degrading and eliminating the threat of these groups.  On this trip, President Trump will join King Salman in inaugurating the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh. 

But the Trump administration is also expected to push for what White House officials call an “Arab NATO”.  The actual plans in terms of the structural organisation, membership, and goals are yet to be announced.  However, it is clear that the US wants closer security coordination between key Arab states and more burden-sharing to maintain the security of the region. I expect the Saudis and many others to be supportive of this plan.  But the US is expected to play an active role in this “alliance” if it was to be achieved.  Also it should be clear that the intention of such alliance is to solely defend member states from external threats and to defeat terrorism.  This will encourage more regional members to join the security pact, and the alliance will more likely be successful overall.  

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Another major aspect of Trump’s visit is economic. During the GCC-US meetings, I think Trump will offer more military sales to the Gulf States.  It is already expected that Trump will announce a new US arms package for Saudi Arabia valued around $100bn in Riyadh.  I also suspect that Trump will ask the Gulf States to financially support his $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Reports speculate that the Saudis will commit $40bn to this plan. In addition, a US-Saudi economic program valued at more than $200bn is to be implemented over the next 4 years. The Trump administration will expect other rich Gulf States to chip-in as well. However, JASTA should be scrapped to assure investments from the Gulf.         

The Saudi government will extend a warm and heartfelt welcome to President Trump during his visit.  But he will be judged based on his actions, not promises.

Hamad Althunayyan is a PhD Researcher in Political Science at University of Maryland – College Park. He earned his BA in Political Science from Virginia Commonwealth University and MA in International Relations from American University, Washington, DC. He wrote several articles on Gulf security, Iran, and U.S. role in the region. Follow him on twitter: @HAlthunayyan

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.