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Closer US-Saudi defense ties more crucial than ever

Tens of billions of dollars of advanced weapons sales are expected to go ahead between the US and Saudi Arabia as President Donald Trump gears up for his historic visit. The approval and timing of these deliveries are part of a broader “reset” in the strategic partnership. While close ties date back to the era of President Franklin Roosevelt, the impetus for strengthening them has never been stronger amid rising threats from Iran and global extremism.

The Washington visit in March by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the key catalyst to accelerating the US decision to move forward in deepening and broadening the partnership. That meeting was a watershed moment because it laid out all the cards on the table in a straightforward manner.

The Trump White House agreed that a new era of cooperation on counterterrorism, countering Iran, and the economic benefits of direct investment were of benefit to both countries. The subsequent visit of Defense Secretary James Mattis to Riyadh in April further highlighted the Trump administration’s commitment to backing Saudi efforts to counter malign Iranian influence in the Arabian Gulf and the broader region.

Trump’s decision to make Saudi Arabia the first destination in his travel abroad as president is historic. His arrival will take place as the Kingdom hosts a US-Islamic Summit, with leaders from across the Arab and Muslim worlds in attendance. A clear message is being broadcast to the world: The US is committed to dialogue with the Muslim world and working with its Muslim and Arab allies against extremism.

Trump’s many Western media detractors who had criticized him for ostensibly being anti-Muslim now must reconcile that narrative with the fact that he is undoubtedly more popular than his predecessor in this region.

The ongoing war in Yemen was also a factor in enhancing US-Saudi military cooperation. The Pentagon has grown increasingly weary of Iranian interference in Yemen, which has upgraded the lethality of the Houthi militias.

The Arab Coalition’s ongoing fight against Daesh and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen involves the security interests not only of the alliance but of the whole world. Following Trump’s election, there has been a notable US policy shift in recognizing this.

When Trump lands in Saudi Arabia later this month, it will be in many ways a homecoming that opens the road for prosperity and peace in times when turmoil and the looming cloud of war hang ominously over the region.

Oubai Shahbandar 

The munitions and air defense systems that will be part of the military sales package to the Kingdom will play an integral role in the fight against Iran’s proxies. Given that Tehran has been trying to supply Houthi militias with more advanced and accurate ballistic missiles, finalizing the deal with Washington to include a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system could not have come at a better time.

The convergence in worldviews between the US and Saudi Arabia is in stark contrast to the Obama doctrine, which held that Iran and Saudi Arabia were equally to blame for regional instability. The prior administration’s myopic focus on normalizing ties with Iran, despite the expansion of its proxy militias throughout the Middle East, was a mainstay in encouraging further destabilization.

The new understanding between Trump and King Salman will offer much-needed relief from the grave policy failures under Barack Obama, which offered Iran and extremists under its patronage a blank check to wreak havoc.

The economic benefits to the US and Saudi Arabia in strengthening non-energy investment will further solidify bilateral ties. Their defense deals are a major job producer in the US, and as the Kingdom seeks to implement Vision 2030 economic reforms, there is an eagerness to offer American technology and entertainment firms preferred access to Saudi markets.

No wonder mutual enemies such as Daesh, Al-Qaeda and Iranian extremists view the US and Saudi Arabia as their adversaries. The US and the Kingdom are inexorably linked on the security, economic and political levels. Culturally, many Saudis look warmly to the US, while Trump has found a natural ally in Saudi Arabia. The bond between the leaderships of the two countries is profound.

When Trump lands in Saudi Arabia later this month, it will be in many ways a homecoming that opens the road for prosperity and peace in times when turmoil and the looming cloud of war hang ominously over the region.

 

Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.