Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman arrived in Washington this week to meet with President Trump and his team and to reset the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which hit an all-time low during the Obama administration. If the two sides agree — and there is ample reason to believe they will — much progress can be made on containing Iran, defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda and, at long last, helping resolve the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The two sides are also likely to find ways to create jobs in the United States through trade and investment, a subject dear to Mr. Trump.
President Obama rejected Saudi warnings and turned a blind eye toward Iran’s interventionist policies in the Middle East. Tehran tried to dominate Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen and take advantage of chaos in those countries. It mobilized its considerable resources to indoctrinate, train and arm Shiite groups such as Hezbollah, the Houthis and the Hashd al-Shaabi whose aim is to undermine local stability and American influence. The Obama White House did little to block this duplicity because it did not want to jeopardize the centerpiece of its diplomatic efforts: the nuclear arms deal with Iran. Mr. Obama often told journalists that Riyadh and Tehran had to learn to “share the region.” For many Arab listeners, that was code for buckling to Tehran’s dangerous expansionism.
Mr. Trump and his key advisers have made clear that Iran’s activities must stop and that Mr. Obama’s policies of appeasement are over. This week, the Saudi’s deputy crown prince, who heads the kingdom’s military, will press for concrete steps that both countries can take to reverse the tide of Iranian power. He will no doubt begin by discussing the war in Yemen where a local Shiite militia (called the Houthis) has fallen under Iranian influence. Iran hopes to turn the Houthis into a Hezbollah-like force that can threaten Saudi Arabia across its long border with Yemen.
Indeed, Iranian meddling has fueled Yemen’s civil war and created vacuums that al Qaeda and ISIS have been able to fill. Unfortunately, the Yemeni tragedy has no easy remedy. Four decades of bad governance have created complex internal divisions there. Nonetheless, a strong U.S.-Saudi statement that Iran’s intervention in Yemen will no longer be tolerated is much needed. The future of Yemen and security in the Middle East are at stake.
The war against jihadi Islamism is another area of agreement between the deputy crown prince and the Trump administration. Expect them to announce increased anti-terrorism cooperation around the world. More complicated will be aligning on ways to end the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Saudi leaders want Israel to endorse the Palestinian goal of statehood or to at least move in that direction. In return, Riyadh would publicly accept Israel as a sovereign nation as it promised to do in King Abdullah’s 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Saudi Arabia would also work to persuade the Palestinians to accept the deal. But the Saudis won’t sell the Palestinians short to make such a compromise.
The deputy crown prince has been leading an effort to transform and diversify the Saudi economy to reduce its dependence on oil revenues. He also wants to open the Saudi economy to outside investors and allocate substantial Saudi assets for investment overseas, mainly in the United States. The heart of this effort is the initial public offering in 2018 of 5 percent of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco. The IPO is likely to take place in New York and the proceeds will be invested globally.
An initial indication of how these funds will be deployed was the Saudi investment of $3.5 billion in Uber last year. If this is a model for future investments — and many experts believe it is — the deputy crown prince plans to intertwine the Saudi economy even more tightly with the United States. In other words, President Trump can present the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a way to generate U.S. jobs. Thousands of American jobs already depend on Saudi purchases of all kinds, from weapons systems to medical equipment. Expect to hear more along these lines. The developing synergies between the two countries and their newfound affinity in foreign policy, especially with regard to Iran, will become clear this week during high-level Saudi-U.S. talks.
• Bernard Haykel is professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University.
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