The optics of Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he addressed dozens of leaders from Arab and Muslim majority countries, suggested a dramatic departure for American Middle East policy. But the reality is far more different. Trump outlined a highly conventional U.S. Middle East policy focused on cooperation with traditional regional allies against Iran and terrorism. Even Trump’s Islam speech, which many feared would be a declaration of civilization war, was dominated by conventional American language.
Trump’s strategic concept of renewed partnership with traditional autocratic allies in the service of confrontation with Iran and counter-terrorism is a deeply familiar one. Trump’s shift from radical campaign rhetoric to a traditional set of policies could be viewed through the lens of the international relations theoretical debates about structure and agency. Trump, like presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama before him, was forced back to the center by the structural logic of America’s role in Middle Eastern politics.
At this early stage, however, it may be more useful to view Trump’s Saudi visit through the lens of intra-alliance bargaining games. Obama sought to push regional allies toward his view of American interests and values, through a combination of pressure, inducements such as arms sales, and rhetorical persuasion. Trump has instead preemptively made many more concessions to the preferences of Arab regimes in the hopes that they will respond with financial and political support.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated bluntly in his joint news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir that the newly signed Strategic Vision Document demonstrated the “trust between our two nations that we are pursuing the same objectives.” This declaration of common objectives among long-standing allies is, of course, diplomatic boilerplate. But it is nonetheless significant because the years following 2011 were dominated by highly public intra-alliance bargaining politics.
After 2011, Arab regimes leveraged their highly public displeasure with Obama’s embrace of the Arab uprisings, refusal to intervene directly in Syria, pursuit of diplomacy with Iran and professed fears of abandonment into unprecedented levels of arms sales, the muting of criticism of their human rights abuses and acquiescence to their interventions in Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen. Obama, for his part, secured Arab acceptance of the Iran nuclear deal and put together a large regional coalition in support of the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Obama’s tough bargaining style within the alliance thus produced a fairly even balance sheet, even if it did not produce ostentatious displays of friendship.
Trump, despite campaigning with harsh denunciations of Saudi Arabia and a promise of tough international bargaining, has opted instead for an alliance strategy of concessions and warm embrace. Trump is taking advantage of the fresh start offered to any new president. Instead of making hard asks of his alliance partners at the outset of the relationship, however, he has adopted their worldview, language, and preferences. Will Trump’s strategy of preemptive concessions and overt public embrace of the Arab regimes produce better results than did Obama’s hard bargaining and public challenges?
It is not yet obvious the extent to which Trump has actually aligned with the key strategic priorities of his Arab partners. While the Trump administration is clearly more confrontational toward Iran than Obama, it also seems inclined toward quietly maintaining the terms of the nuclear agreement. Despite the close relations between Iran and the Iraqi government, Trump has sustained close military cooperation with the Iraqi security forces, and often tacit cooperation with the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces, in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq. The visit of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did not produce a change in the American alignment with the Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State in Syria. Recent airstrikes against Syrian regime forces may have the United States sliding down the slope toward the greater involvement in Syria’s endless war which Arab regimes have always wanted, but nothing said publicly in Saudi Arabia suggested an overt embrace of such escalation.
What’s more, Trump’s embrace of the Gulf leadership’s worldview does not allow these regimes to overcome their very real domestic problems, and will likely make them worse. Trump enthusiastically participated in a symbolic funeral for the Arab uprisings by embracing repressive leaders such as Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. No activists, civil society leaders or intellectuals were present, and Trump explicitly disavowed any pressure to alleviate their suffering at the hands of abusive regimes. Arab regimes will have ample opportunity to continue their long practice of manipulating the discourse of terrorism to justify the wide-scale repression of civil society, independent media, and political dissent.
Trump’s transactional approach succeeded in extracting commitments of more than $400 billion in arms sales and infrastructure investments. But these commitments may prove difficult to meet for regimes already entering into unusual austerity measures in response to persistently low oil prices. Trump’s public indifference will make it easier for the regimes to sustain their crackdown on civil society and political dissent, but such repression will exacerbate the governance failures and political grievances which lay the ground for another round of instability. By almost every indicator — economic, political, security or social — the Arab regimes upon which Trump is doubling down are more unstable now than they appeared to be in the years leading up to the 2011 uprisings.
All this means that despite his strategy of embracing Arab partners at the outset of his term, Trump will almost certainly soon experience tensions. By moving quickly toward accepting the preferences of the Arab regimes while making few demands, Trump is beginning the alliance bargaining game with warm feelings among his regime partners but a relatively weak internal bargaining position. It remains to be seen whether this approach will produce greater cooperation or relationships which survive the inevitable turbulence.