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Restoration of traditional Saudi-US ties is afoot

The Arab Summit due next week in Jordan will come amid a qualitative strengthening of US-Saudi relations, accomplished by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Washington this week. The focus was on the following issues: Iran and its regional roles; Palestine; US requirements regarding the Arab role in eliminating Daesh and similar groups; and Syria.

The Arab Summit is unlikely to come out with historical resolutions, because Arab countries are not key players in shaping history in the region at this stage. This is a stage of managing fragile realignments and U-turns. These include the shift in US-Saudi relations under President Donald Trump, which has restored them to their state prior to his predecessor Barack Obama.

So far this shift does not seem fragile, judging from the climate following the meeting between Prince Mohammed and Trump, and the security, economic, trade and political talks on its sidelines. The Saudi decision is clear: Realigning the Kingdom in the direction of the Trump administration’s policies in all areas. The US decision is also clear: Welcoming the renewal of vital bilateral ties, especially in light of Vision 2030 for the Kingdom’s future.

According to signals from Washington, Trump also wants to mend US-Egyptian ties, which were torn asunder by the Obama administration. Clearly, the Trump administration will reverse the priority assigned under Obama to appeasing Iran. It is also intent on trying to find the optimal deal between the Palestinians and Israelis.

But it is unclear how the Trump administration plans to deal with Turkey, whose president is fighting a bitter public battle with European allies and playing the Russian card, presenting himself as both an extraordinary friend and extraordinary foe. All these issues will overshadow the Arab Summit, which may decide to ignore them instead of drafting pre-emptive strategies to deal with them.

The snow storm in Washington delayed a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, scheduled initially for Tuesday. The storm worked in Prince Mohammed’s favor. It gave him an opportunity to hold a historic meeting with Trump in the Oval Office and have lunch with him. This was ideal for the two to get to know each other personally, and to allow chemistry to do its work for their countries’ relations.

Usually only heads of state are received in the Oval Office, which makes the meeting with Prince Mohammed there that much more special. The meeting, which was brought forward by two days, showed the extent of preparations and readiness of the Saudi delegation before it reached Washington.

The delegation brought a number of key principles it wanted the US shift to adopt. It was also well aware of Trump’s priorities, from the quest to defeat Daesh to the wall on the Mexico border, to which the Saudis can contribute their experience in constructing the Saudi-Iraqi border wall.

The delegation was keen on toning down the Trump administration’s position vis-a-vis the travel ban on citizens of six Muslim-majority nations, and made sure to avoid characterizing it as a Muslim ban, while showing understanding toward the measures adopted by the Trump administration.

Trump has reversed Obama’s approach to US-Saudi ties, restoring their traditional foundations instead of annexing them to US-Iranian relations. Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman agreed to counter Iran’s destabilizing regional activities, while continuing to strictly assess its implementation of the nuclear agreement.

Raghida Dergham

A high-level adviser to Prince Mohammed even spoke of the similarities between the boldness of Vision 2030 and Trump’s “Make America Great Again” promise, saying the convergence between the two constituted a shared policy. The adviser spoke of the opportunities to be found in the countries’ “massive” trade and investment relations, praising a positive climate that he said would not have been possible without Trump’s efforts.

This was echoed by the White House when a US official, in his briefing on the meetings, underscored that expanding economic cooperation could create a million direct jobs and a million indirect ones for Americans in the coming four years, as well as jobs in Saudi Arabia.

The US official said Trump expressed support for developing a new US-Saudi program to promote up to $200 billion worth of initiatives in energy, manufacturing, infrastructure and technology, via direct and indirect investments in the next four years. This is in addition to supporting US investment in Saudi Arabia and facilitating bilateral trade.

The two sides agreed on a permanent strategic partnership built on shared interests and a joint commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East. Trump and Prince Mohammed instructed their teams to explore the next steps at all levels. This all boils down to one thing: Trump has reversed Obama’s approach to US-Saudi ties, restoring their traditional foundations instead of annexing them to US-Iranian relations.

Trump and Prince Mohammed agreed to counter Iran’s destabilizing regional activities, while continuing to strictly assess its implementation of the nuclear agreement. They also agreed on military cooperation against Daesh and other terrorist groups that threaten the two countries, with implementation details to be worked out by experts and commanders on both sides.

In a reversal of Obama’s policies, now the main partner in the war on Daesh is no longer Iran but Saudi Arabia, and its spheres of influence in Iraq in particular and Syria where possible. The Kingdom will take part in the war on Daesh and Al-Qaeda directly, as part of a joint strategy with the US. Details of how and when will come later, except what we already know about additional measures to prevent funding by Saudi citizens of radical Islamic groups.

One question with an unclear answer is: How does the Trump administration intend to curb Iran’s ambitions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen? Perhaps the easiest link will be Yemen, where US-Saudi policies are being drafted requiring a change in war tactics and political approaches, including vis-a-vis President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, who has been resisting concessions.

The US priority in Yemen is to fight terrorism, especially Al-Qaeda, prevent Iran from threatening American interests in the strategic strait of Bab Al-Mandab, and secure the Saudi border with Yemen. The Saudi priority is not much different, with one key departure being the fate of Houthi rebels.

Washington wants Saudi Arabia to modify its war tactics in Yemen so they do not amount to obstructions. The two sides agree on the need to find an exit strategy for the Kingdom, and to head off Iranian ambitions through the Yemeni gateway.

Syria is different. Raqqa is a priority for the US. The Trump administration wants to crush Daesh there under any circumstances, even if that requires deploying US ground forces. Saudi Arabia is ready to meet any US requests in Raqqa, including military participation.

What is still unknown is how the Trump administration intends to keep bridges open with Russia — if not a special relationship, as desired by Trump, with his counterpart Vladimir Putin — in light of Moscow’s clear commitment to a special relationship with Iran and its interests in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s fate is up for discussion for Trump, meaning there is no current insistence on his departure. This was communicated by Trump to his Saudi guest. Iran is a priority, but it is still ambiguous how Iranian ambitions in Syria will be dealt with in the absence of a well-defined strategy.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict was present in the US-Saudi talks, bearing in mind that Trump is resolved to finding a solution where successive US administrations have failed. The Trump administration has implemented measures to end the stalemate, inviting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington and dispatching his envoy to meet Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to explore prospects for a deal.

What the Trump administration wants is a marriage between the necessary Arab umbrella for action on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and the Israeli-Palestinian bilateral track that is the crux of any solution. Trump has tasked his son-in-law Jared Kushner to lead the efforts, which means he now has a personal stake in the challenge.

Saudi Arabia is crucial to his efforts, because it was the country that proposed the Arab Peace Initiative. But the how and when are once again a mystery, because the Trump administration is still finding its way and has yet to propose a comprehensive policy.

All these issues require the Arab Summit not to limit itself to waiting for developments and further clarity on Palestine, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Arab summits must seize the initiative, adopt pre-emptive strategies and tell the Palestinians to stop seeking small victories and end their major internal differences.

The current juncture is of major importance to the entire Arab region. To tackle the regional balance of power, it is high time for a clear Arab strategy at a time of US ambiguity, Turkish stumbling, Iranian apprehension and Israeli vigilance.

• Raghida Dergham is columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the UN. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP — the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

— Originally published in Al-Hayat