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US, Saudi Arabia find convergence on fighting terror, boosting GCC, economic expansion

President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on Friday, before boarding Marine One for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP)

WASHINGTON: As Donald Trump arrives in Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as US president, formal security agreements, a counterterror plan, boosting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and expanding economic ties are expected to top the agenda of his meetings.
Trump’s arrival comes at a high point in US-Saudi relations, according to analysts, and follows preparatory work and visits to Riyadh this year by US Defense Secretary James Mattis and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo.
Senior Saudi political and economic delegations went to Washington in the last three months, starting with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with Trump in March; Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s meetings with his counterpart Rex Tillerson on different occasions; and a US-Saudi economic summit at the US Chamber of Commerce last month.
Mark Wallace, a former US ambassador and CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran, told Arab News that Trump’s visit is aimed at “improving relations with Saudi Arabia after they were strained because of the Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran.”
Wallace described strengthened US-Saudi ties as a “win-win for both countries. Washington is able to receive more support in its effort to combat terrorism, while Riyadh and other countries in the neighborhood are able to more thoroughly defend their territorial integrity.”
Counterterrorism will be high on the list as Trump and King Salman sit down for their first meeting.
Fahad Nazer, an international fellow with the National Council on US Arab Relations, told Arab News: “Trump has consistently said defeating the terrorist group Daesh is his top foreign policy priority, and it seems clear the US considers Saudi Arabia a vital — perhaps indispensable — ally in the fight. Close counterterrorism cooperation has become an anchor of US-Saudi relations, although relations remain multidimensional.”
Wallace anticipated that the visit would lay the ground for formal security arrangements as well.
“There’s a change (from the administration of former President Barack Obama), particularly with increased arms sales,” he said.
Reuters reported that US-Saudi arms sales talks involve the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.
“A boost for the GCC security structure is also in the discussions,” said Wallace, who spoke of a real “possibility of a more formal security arrangement with Riyadh down the road, potentially designating more GCC members as major non-NATO allies.”
Boosting the GCC is something previous US administrations have attempted, but their efforts were derailed by regional conflicts and other priorities.
Wallace said: “A strong and unified GCC is vital for US interests. Bolstering Gulf states’ deterrence capabilities advances US national security in combating terrorism, and facilitates the GCC’s ability to check Iran’s destabilizing regional activities.” Such planning would also fit with Trump’s burden-sharing strategy, Wallace added.
While Obama’s last visit to Riyadh a year ago was clouded by mistrust and differences over Iran, a more friendly setting is expected for Trump, said Wallace and Nazer.
“Rather than being told to share the region with Iran, as Obama used to argue, this White House seems more committed to holding Tehran accountable for its reckless non-nuclear behavior, namely regional meddling, sponsorship of terrorism and human rights abuses, even at the expense of the nuclear deal.”
Nazer said: “The participation of dozens of countries from across the Arab and Muslim worlds suggests that other political, economic and social challenges confronting both worlds will also be on the table.”
Tillerson touted at a US-Saudi CEO Summit more bilateral economic investment and cooperation because “when US companies invest in the Saudi economy, everyone wins.”
In that context, “the Saudi leadership has made it clear that one of the keys to the success of Vision 2030 is attracting direct foreign investment,” said Nazer.
“American companies have a long and successful record in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi leadership has expressed its strong desire to foster and develop economic ties even further.”
This approach would mean “US companies could invest in the deputy crown prince’s ambitious Vision 2030 economic reform initiative, and Saudis could invest their much-promised $200 billion in the US economy, which could result in job creation at home,” said Wallace.
While in Saudi, Trump is expected to give a speech on Islam, and will participate in the opening of a center intended to fight radical ideology.
Wallace and Nazer agreed that the visit marks renewed US engagement in Middle East politics, with a starkly different tone and approach to that of the Obama administration.