After saying farewell to British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday, and speaking to the leaders of Russia, France and Germany on Saturday, President Trump spent part of Sunday afternoon reaffirming the relationship between the United States and its most important strategic partner in the Persian Gulf region. Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman spoke yesterday in what was Trump’s first telephone call with an Arab leader.
The leaders consulted one another on topics of importance to both nations in the region including joint efforts to combat radical Islamic terrorism and ISIS, Iran, the continuing war in Yemen, and the possibility of establishing safe zones inside of Syria. On the subject of establishing safe zones in Syria, Salman voiced support for the idea. Saudi Arabia’s involvement would be critical for any attempt to create safe zones. Salman even supported the creation of safe zones inside of Yemen as a relief valve to the pressure building in that nation right now.
On Iran, Trump and Salman agreed on the need to counter Tehran’s continuing efforts to destabilize the region. From Baghdad to Sana’a, Iran’s meddling has been frequent and consequential. Over the last two to three years, Saudi Arabia has been holding the line against Iranian attempts to achieve regional hegemony. The effort has come largely without support from the US. With a new president in the White House, King Salman is hoping the days of minimal US support will soon be a thing of the past.
Barack Obama did not treat Saudi Arabia as a vital strategic partner for much of his two terms in office. His words were always carefully selected to portray the image of US-Saudi solidarity on many regional issues, however, his actions fell short. Behind the scenes especially, there was a disconnect between the US president and Salman, as well as his predecessor King Abdullah. During the Obama era, Saudi Arabia was unceremoniously placed on the back burner and relegated to the status of a second-tier ally. Obama’s reluctance to engage the Saudis in a true partnership was partly responsible for the emergence of Russian influence in the region. With the rise of both ISIS and Iran, as well as the decline in oil revenue, Saudi Arabia was desperately seeking concrete proof that the United States still stood at its side. It received reams of public assurances, but little in the way of actual deeds.
Salman is hoping that this will change, and US policy will be reversed under President Trump. It remains unclear if this is to be the case, but yesterday’s conversation is a step in the right direction.