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Resetting Saudi-US relations

It has become commonplace for political pundits to declare that bilateral relations between two nations have been “reset” soon after a new government or leader comes to power in one or both countries. That has been the case for some observers who are evaluating the current state of relations between Saudi Arabia and the US as President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, and the personnel tasked with implementing it, come into sharper focus.
 
While the “reset” metaphor is sometimes indicative of wishful thinking, in the case of Saudi-US relations there is cause for optimism among those who support strong bilateral ties. It is becoming clear that there is strong convergence between the countries on a range of issues. A readout of a phone call between King Salman and Trump this week stressed the important political, security and economic cooperation between the two nations.
 
However, mutual interests are only part of the picture. The leaderships of both countries have made clear that not only are they committed to strengthening bilateral ties, they also appear to be very attuned as to the best means to do so. In other words, the two nations are putting a high premium on the lost art of statecraft and diplomacy.
 
Much has been said and written about what many perceived as a philosophical disconnect between the two nations under former President Barack Obama. Although political, security and economic cooperation continued to strengthen and broaden during his eight-year tenure, Saudi Arabia and the US appeared to view one key regional player — Iran — through different lenses.
 
The Obama administration seemed to operate under the premise that signing the nuclear deal with Iran would bring it in from its international isolation and serve as an incentive for it to become a more responsible member of the international community.
 
However, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states worried that the agreement would be interpreted by Iran’s leadership as a capitulation by the international community. It was feared that the deal would embolden Iran to continue its destabilizing activities and “meddling” in the affairs of the region’s nations.
 
This difference of views does not appear to exist between the two current leaderships. Trump and his senior advisers appear to be as troubled as the Saudi leadership has been about Iran’s foreign policy, incendiary rhetoric and weapons programs. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, delivered a strongly worded warning to Tehran on Wednesday, which he ended by saying: “We are officially putting Iran on notice.”
 
Not only did Flynn maintain that Iran’s testing of a ballistic missile violated its commitments to the international community as embodied in a UN Security Council resolution, he also took issue with Iranian-supported Houthi rebels’ recent attack against a Saudi naval vessel. 
Fahad Nazer
 
This combination of assertiveness and clear policies largely explains why so many in the GCC are very optimistic about the Trump presidency and the prospect of the US regaining its eminent place on the world stage.
 
A determination to counter what they consider to be Iran’s destabilizing role in the region is only one component of the solid foundation on which current Saudi-US relations rest. The Trump administration appears to have a deep understanding of the eminent stature of Saudi Arabia in both the Muslim and Arab worlds, and how it can be a crucial partner in helping bring stability to the region and in defeating militant groups such as Daesh.
 
Just as importantly, senior Trump officials and advisers seem to appreciate that Saudi Arabia is undergoing “massive change,” in the words of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giulliani. A similar sentiment was made by now-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Senate confirmation hearing.
 
When asked whether he agreed with a particularly bleak assessment of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Tillerson’s response suggested a sophisticated worldview and nuanced understanding of the changes and reforms taking place in the Kingdom. He turned the tables on the panel by questioning the notion that “labeling” was an effective means to affect reform and change in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else.
 
A preference for close but private consultations, and a deep appreciation of the unique role that each country can play to bring stability to the region as well as the challenges that each faces, appear to undergird relations between the Trump administration and the Saudi leadership.
 
Saudi-US relations under Trump are off to an auspicious start, and could potentially be restored to their heyday in 1991, when the two nations fought a war side by side, and when the answer to the question “Are Saudi Arabia and the US friends?” was an unequivocal: “Yes.”
 
Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.