As a candidate for the Oval Office, Donald Trump was not shy about criticizing Saudi Arabia. Contexts change, though, and as president, his administration has refrained from unjustified, unnecessary and provocative statements in this regard.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to the faith’s two holiest places, is a country that is vital to America’s national interests and strategic concerns. It has been one of the foremost US national security partners for the past eight decades — longer than any other developing nation.
If America is to be “great again,” it can and must be greater in very particular ways. One of which is to be far greater than derogatory and antagonistic rhetoric toward a country central to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who represent nearly a quarter of humanity.
By selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on his historic visit, the first official one to any foreign country, President Trump has been prudent to seize an opportunity to turn a new and more positive page toward Arabs and Muslims in the region and beyond. The president’s visit has a chance to begin healing wounds that have been inflicted on Muslims the world over.
A historic visit
Selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on this historic visit — when the American president could easily and without controversy have selected any one among numerous other countries — sends a strong message to the Arab countries, the Middle East and the Islamic world.
The announcement of his visit to the country has already had a powerfully uplifting and relevant symbolic effect. Its impact has been greatest on the Kingdom and its neighbors.
Peoples of this region include large numbers that have longed for this kind of American leadership for quite some time. The visit speaks volumes as to how vital these countries are to the US. It underscores their critical importance to America’s friends, allies and the rest of the world.
Make no mistake about it: Of the planet’s 212 countries and the 193 members of the UN, all but a few would want to host the president of the most economically, financially, scientifically, technologically, educationally, and militarily powerful nation.
What further distinguishes the president’s visit to Riyadh is its multiple benefits. Indeed, he is scheduled to meet not only with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman but also the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Americans have long been mistakenly accustomed to thinking that the largest number of US armed forces abroad are in Germany, Japan and South Korea. For some time, however, this has no longer been true — they are stationed in the GCC. Thus, the additional significance of the visit to the Kingdom’s capital, which is also the GCC’s headquarters.
Trump’s meetings with these influential additional leaders in a matter of days ought not to be lost on anyone. Coming at this time, the president’s visit sends a strong message of American engagement, projection, and commitment to the internationally concerted, US-led action against violent extremism.
A new regional security architecture?
Little known to many is that Saudi Arabia bears one of the highest defense burdens in the world.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) noted that the Kingdom’s military spending accounted for 12.7 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015 and 8.9 percent in 2016, ranking it fourth behind the US, China and Russia. Even so, and despite the global decrease in the price of oil, Riyadh remains one of the largest consumers of American Foreign Military Sales (FMS).
Furthering this side of the relationship, President Trump is expected to arrive with an additional $100 billion in FMS packages that include ships, missile defense and maritime security systems.
The significance of the president achieving a commercial deal of this size would not be lost on defense strategists and analysts. It would represent a significant reversal of the White House’s stance near the end of the Obama administration. What other meaning should one read into this component of the president’s visit?
For starters, Trump’s time in Riyadh would signal US administration’s agreement that Saudi Arabia is critical to countering Iran’s efforts to undermine regimes friendly to the US. Straightening the military relationship between Washington and Riyadh would further align American and coalition countries in their joint quest to defeat Daesh, Al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups.
As much as if not more than anything else, the president’s visit is significant because it should help to focus everyone’s attention on an important challenge: For the participants to jointly commit to a future objective, often overlooked, that has vital implications for all concerned.
This would be the summiteers’ collective vow to ensure that what must come after ongoing operations is a significantly reduced chance and capacity for violent militants to threaten these key American allies, or any other nations, again.
To these and related ends, speculation — long bantered about by Americans and others who would hope to become financial beneficiaries — has it that the US may encourage a GCC-centric Arab “NATO” arrangement. The strategic military goal of such an undertaking, which would be to further ensure regional security and peace, is unassailable.
Without these two realities — security and peace — in place and maintained over time, there can be no prospects for sustained stability, modernization and development.
Standing in the way of such an achievement, however, are decades-old geopolitical obstacles anchored deeply in pan-Arab sentiments that have repeatedly weighed in against such an arrangement being forged.
None should doubt for a moment the complexities entailed in being able to reach such an accord. Neither should one try to gloss over the kinds of difficulties that could be expected were it achieved.
Vision 2030: Opportunities for enhanced trade ties
Another topic that will be discussed by President Trump and his Saudi hosts is how and what the implications are of the Kingdom’s economy undergoing such immense and far-reaching change. The transformation is being guided by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials.
Released 13 months ago, Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” represents a massive shift away from dependence on a commodity closely tied to the shifts of external markets. Coupled with 70 percent of its population under the age of 30 years old, Saudi Arabia in this regard and in numerous other ways has started planning for the future in an unprecedented manner.
Never before has this writer seen anything as bold, sweeping and visionary as what the Kingdom is trying to achieve.
For background and context, in 1950 the Kingdom had a population of 3.9 million people. The number of inhabitants now is nearly 30 million.
Diversification, privatization, replacing foreign workers with nationals and improving incomes and living standards for the country’s citizens are among the parts of the newly minted comprehensive plan.
There is no question that the transformation plan represents an unprecedented opening for companies. US manufacturers, retailers and service providers stand to benefit substantially.
These and other important private sector actors are looking for talent in places they have never looked before. Those doing so envision potential gains from employing a workforce with a high proportion of graduates from American institutions of higher learning.
According to an unofficial study by a former nationally prominent deputy minister, such graduates exceed 300,000.
If accurate, this has to be one of the largest numbers of US-educated people living and working in one country anywhere in the world. The opportunities from this perspective alone — and the chance to build upon them — are numerous and staggering in scope. These Saudi nationals constitute not only a massive US-produced human resource base — they include tens of thousands who are unabashedly nostalgic about their time in the US.
Untold thousands of the Kingdom’s citizens are highly vocal about their almost unadulterated fondness for the American people. Their emotions are rooted deep in the times and kinds of teachers, foreign student advisers and others with whom they met and spent such quality time with when they were transitioning from their post-secondary school studies to adulthood.
Not far back, more than 100,000 of these Saudis had reportedly purchased residences in places all over America. Impressive numbers of these individuals have done so with a view to locating as near as possible to where they had gone to school before. For decades, they have been bringing their spouses and children with them to America.
Together, they have basked in a country and with a people dear to their heart. Not one among them is embarrassed to admit with a pride that is often something greater than many an American tends to admit. This is that during what were the most impressionable years of their earlier preparatory life, the US, as a country and a people, made an indelible and lasting impression upon them.
Indeed, America was the place away from home whose people, in what at first was a strange and foreign land, they had most come to love and not on their life would they ever forget.
This writer has said it often before. Each day since the late 1970s has been witness to a phenomenon likely experienced in few other countries. For nearly 40 years, a greater number of American university graduates from Saudi Arabia with advanced degrees have served in their country’s Cabinet, or Council of Ministers, than there have been officials serving in the US Cabinet with advanced degrees from anywhere.
Figures pertaining to the 150 members of the Kingdom’s Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council), the nearest deliberative body to the American Congress, are as astounding if not more so. Perhaps, 90 percent have their doctoral degrees from universities in the US. In dramatic contrast, the number of Congressmen with graduate degrees from anywhere is massively fewer.
Human resource challenges, opportunities
To be sure, no country’s leaders who seek to make life better for their citizens are devoid of defect.
Mistakes are made by people who are active and try to improve things; those whose errors are few or none tend to create little or nothing of value that impacts the lives of others.
This said, few could readily find fault for the Kingdom approaching its challenges in an innovative spirit.
But one example among many others is that US-trained and educated Saudi citizens who are still in the US are being encouraged to participate in internships with American companies before returning home.
Indeed, a Center for Career Development exists at the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in Washington. The center interacts and liaises with US companies already conducting or looking to do business in the Kingdom.
Each side recognizes the value of such opportunities.
Growing numbers are eager to reap the advantages and leverage that abound in both directions. Not least among the mutual advantages and potential material gain is that there is no obligation to the other by either of the parties. The host corporation does not have to offer further employment or the intern to accept it if offered.
The students are already in the US. They are vouchsafed for by the Saudi embassy. The intra-US travel cost per intern is minimal. And there are no undue complications in the process of extending the students’ visas, in cases where this might be necessary.
Opportunities abound for US-Saudi Arabia partnership and engagement, and effective utilization of the Kingdom’s human resources is an important aspect of the changes underway.
Economic trends to watch
Saudi Arabia is seeking over $200 billion through the privatization of its energy, health, education, agriculture, mining and numerous other sectors.
In addition, 5 percent of Saudi Aramco — the world’s wealthiest company worth more than a trillion dollars — will be sold through the Kingdom’s and select foreign stock markets.
Proceeds are destined for Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), slated to amass the world’s largest sovereign wealth holdings. The funds expected from the sales will not lie idle long. The forecast is that a large portion of the anticipated revenue is certain to increase the Kingdom’s already massive investments in the US.
Such are among the achievements and statements of intent that President Trump’s team anticipates being able to announce during the upcoming visit.
A growing American urge to invest in the Kingdom — and vice versa — is therefore obvious. The interest is marked by US financial firms rapidly moving to establish a foothold in the country. The confidence of business representatives on both sides is buoyed by the awareness that Saudi Arabia continues to produce nearly one-third of all the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) oil currently exported to global markets.
All of this is in keeping with Trump’s wanting to promote his “American First” ideology.
But one among other paths toward doing so would be for him to find ways to incentivize the Kingdom to increase substantially the extent of its US monetary assets in the US. A perennially profitable set of holdings are US Treasury instruments, heightened to seek greater levels of purchases, deposits in US banks and investments in American financial markets.
A wider view
In historical terms, President Trump’s visit represents an opportunity not quite on a par with President Roosevelt’s unprecedented, prodigious and far-reaching meeting with King Salman’s father in February 1945. This said, its potential significance appears to be tilted in that direction.
Certainly, there is no question that there has been nothing like that meeting at Great Bitter Lake since. Instead, far from the atmosphere of President Roosevelt’s meeting with modern Arabia’s and the Gulf’s most powerful and influential monarch, what one has in this instance is something profoundly and categorically different.
This moment finds a president in domestic trouble but on the threshold of what, barring a serious mishap, could be one of the more phenomenal moments in contemporary US-Arab relations.
• Dr. John Duke Anthony is the founding president and CEO of the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is a member of the US Department of State’s International Economic Policy Advisory Committee and the Committee’s Subcommittee on Sanctions; a life member of the council on Foreign Relations since 1986; the only Westerner to have been invited to attend each of the GCC ministerial and heads of state summits since the GCC’s establishment in 1981.