Imagery and symbolism can be powerful factors in shaping new realities, and whether it is US President Donald Trump joining in a traditional sword dance, or hundreds of young Saudis riding their Harley-Davidsons to welcome the US president, the symbolic message from this week’s Riyadh summit was an exceedingly important one. After a US presidential campaign filled with rhetoric demonizing both Muslims and Saudis, elements of the US heartland probably conflated Riyadh with Raqqa, the latter being the self-declared capital of ISIS. These Americans now have reason to pause and reconsider.
Critics of the summit argue that the Trump administration and its Saudi interlocutors are high on rhetoric and low on substance. After all, the White House is mired in domestic political problems and has yet to fill key foreign policy positions. Comprehensive policy reviews are still under way, including on key Middle East issues such as Iran, Syria, and Yemen. Riyadh, as a piece in the Washington Post advised, would do well not to put all its eggs in the Trump basket, particularly as the future of the US administration is increasingly questioned.
For Saudi Arabia, seeking the best possible relationship with whomever holds the office of president of the United States is paramount. It would be unreasonable to expect otherwise from the Saudis, or any of the United States’ other allies for that matter. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s outreach efforts are not limited to President Trump, but are attempting to connect with America’s heartland by making planned investments and creating jobs in key Rust Belt states. Even a relatively trivial matter, like the choice of Toby Keith as entertainer during the Riyadh summit, was undertaken with the idea of catering to a particular American political constituency, one that generally views Arabs and Muslims unfavorably.
Meanwhile, on the geopolitics front, Trump should be given credit for taking the advice of his senior national security advisors, namely, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, both of whom have firsthand knowledge of the threat that ISIS and Iran pose to US interests. And while Mattis and McMaster are sensitive to the president’s political instinct not to get bogged down in another war, they are supportive of a more forward-leaning US posture in the region. This includes stepped-up use of US special forces and drone strikes in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. It also includes providing greater support for Arab allies as these Middle Eastern nations take the lead in countering the destabilizing activities of ISIS and the Iranian-sponsored militias throughout the region.
Yemen will probably be the first test case for this new approach. Of specific interest to the Saudi-led coalition will be securing greater American intelligence, along with naval and diplomatic backing, to retake the port city of Hodeida from Iranian-backed rebels. Returning Hodeida to government control, or at least UN supervision, is critical if the misallocation of food that left millions on the brink of hunger is to be addressed. It is also important for tightening the blockade against rebel forces and resuming stalled negotiations from a position of strength. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments in Riyadh indicate that Washington will likely green-light the operation despite the risks involved.
Concerns that greater US involvement in Yemen and elsewhere could precipitate a confrontation with Iran are exaggerated. Contrary to what some argue, this is not a backdoor approach to a policy of regime change. Nor is the United States likely to abrogate the nuclear agreement with Iran. There is little to be gained from such a strategy. Instead, as the administration completes its policy reviews, a more muscular version of previous policies is likely to emerge. Sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile program and the activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard will likely become the preferred tools of pressure.
America’s return to the Middle East, aided by its traditional allies, will eventually fill the vacuum and address the destabilization created by the perceived disengagement of the previous administration. With Russia and Iran having secured stronger footholds throughout the region, this process is bound to generate tense political and military standoffs. Syria, for example, may provide the setting for a confrontation if Iranian-backed militias encroach on US special forces, Jordan, or Israel. In time, however, the Riyadh summit will probably be viewed as a significant inflection point toward rebalancing and restoring the US-led order in the Middle East. Toward that end, Saudi Arabia and the United States have again hitched their wagons together.