The World

Despite Donald Trump’s Enthusiasm, the U.S.–Saudi Special Relationship May Not Last

Photo illustration: side-by-side of parallel meetings with U.S. administration and Saudi leadership. Top: President Donald Trump (R) holds up a chart of military hardware sales as he meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Bottom: Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia at Great Bitter Lake in Egypt on February 14, 1945.
Top: Mohammed bin Salman meets with President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday. Bottom: King Ibn Saud meets with President Franklin Roosevelt on the Great Bitter Lake on Feb. 14, 1945.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images and National Archives and Records.

In 1943, Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia and his younger brother Khalid—both of them future kings—arrived in Washington for a meeting with President Roosevelt. Only 37, Faisal served as his elderly father, King Ibn Saud’s, main foreign emissary.

It was an uneasy time for the kingdom, which had been officially proclaimed just a decade earlier. Though the Saudis were already believed to possess massive oil reserves, mass production hadn’t yet been set up, and the country was broke. Having only recently consolidated control over their present territory, the Saud family was concerned about rival monarchies to the north (the Hashemites of Jordan and Iraq), domestic dissent, and tensions with their southern neighbor Yemen, where they had been involved in a bloody military intervention against the country’s Zaydi Shiite rulers. As Bruce Reidel writes in his recent book Kings and Presidents, “The Kingdom was vulnerable and needed an ally.” Roosevelt’s needs were more simple: It was wartime and the U.S. needed safe access to oil for the military, as well as postwar allies in the Middle East.

The trip was a success for Khalid: Plans were set in motion for the U.S. to set up an airbase in the kingdom, and America began providing the kingdom with military assistance. Two years later, Roosevelt would meet Ibn Saud himself on the deck of a U.S. battleship in the Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal, the official start of one of the world’s strongest, and strangest, strategic alliances.

Seventy-five years after the brothers’ trip to Washington, another Saudi prince and future king visited the White House on Tuesday, and the parallels are striking. Like his uncle Faisal, 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman serves as the public face of a kingdom ruled by his infirm father, King Salman. Once again, the kingdom is in dire need of an economic overhaul—this time to wean it off the dependence on oil exports that have enriched the Saud family since World War II. Once again, it is worried about instability at home and threats from abroad in the form of growing Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. And as always, it has a problem in Yemen, whose capital, Sanaa, is once again ruled by Zaydis—the Houthi rebels that a Saudi-led military force has been fighting since 2015. Just as Faisal and Khalid toured about a dozen states during their trip, Mohammed bin Salman heads to Silicon Valley later this week.

Luckily for the prince, the current occupant of the White House is man seemingly hell-bent on outdoing all 13 of his predecessors in his devotion to the House of Saud. “We’ve become very good friends over a fairly short period of time,” President Trump boasted during a photo-op before his meeting with the crown prince at the White House on Tuesday. “The relationship was, to put it mildly, very strained during the Obama administration. And the relationship now is probably as good as it’s really ever been and will probably only get better.”

Though he attacked the kingdom on the campaign trail for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks and for pushing “gays off buildings,” Trump not only made Saudi Arabia his first foreign visit as president, he has fully bought into the kingdom’s view of Iran as the predominant threat to peace and stability in the region, and may fully dismantle the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran as soon as this May. “The Iran deal is coming up and you’re going to see what I do,” the president said Tuesday. “A lot of bad things are happening in Iran.”

The administration has ramped up support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen—and argued the Saudi case at the U.N.—despite the war’s horrific humanitarian consequences and dubious strategic rationale. (Yemen wasn’t mentioned at Tuesday’s press availability.) MBS, as he is colloquially known, has also reportedly developed a close personal relationship with the Trump family’s own “prince”—Jared Kushner—and the president has publicly backed a number of the prince’s more controversial moves, including blockading Qatar, locking up some of the country’s most powerful princes in a luxury hotel for a few weeks, and the quasi-kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister. The Saudis are also no doubt pleased by last week’s firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom they viewed as an ally of their rival Qatar.

As with Faisal’s trip, Mohammed bin Salman is interested in buying guns: Congress narrowly backed a proposed $500 million arms sale to the country last summer. Trump bizarrely showed off a poster board featuring some of the weapons systems involved in the transaction during Tuesday’s meeting, boasting of the American jobs the deal would create and ribbing the prince about the kingdom’s wealth:

And as with the 1943 trip, this prince is looking to transform his country’s image. At that time, the House of Saud wanted to be seen as rulers of a modern nation-state rather than as desert warlords: In 1945 the family declared war on Nazi Germany, helping Saudi Arabia become a founding member of the United Nations.

Today, MBS wants to be seen as a modernizing reformer who is transforming the image of the kingdom as a bastion of extremism.

Since he became de facto ruler, there have been some long-overdue reforms to the country’s stifling religious laws and discrimination against women: Women will soon be allowed to drive, and pop concerts and movie theaters are returning to the country. But there have been few moves toward increasing democratic representation for all Saudis or ending discrimination against religious minorities. Critical journalists and bloggers remain imprisoned. Despite some notable improvements on women’s rights, the notorious male guardianship system remains largely in place.

And despite some flashy public investments, experts are skeptical about the prince’s ambitious plans to wean the country off its dependence on oil exports. His focus on corruption is welcome, though his strategy of locking up and torturing his relatives until they turned over their assets looked more like a shakedown than reform. And the catastrophe in Yemen, not to mention Mohammed bin Salman’s recent backfires in Qatar and Lebanon, cast some doubt on the kingdom’s coveted image as an force for stability in a dangerous region. Though judging by some of the fawning softball press the prince has gotten during this visit, at least some in the U.S. are clearly buying him as a modernizing reformer.

While things are pretty sunny in the U.S.–Saudi relationship at the moment, the prince likely can’t get too complacent. The Senate voted later Tuesday on a bill that would have ended U.S. military support for the campaign against the Houthis. Though the bill failed, at 55–44, the vote was much closer than expected and showed growing opposition to the war from most Democrats and a growing number of Republicans. While the bill itself was focused narrowly on the president’s constitutional authority to wage war, its sponsors also highlighted the humanitarian catastrophe in the country. Last summer’s arms deal only narrowly passed through Senate, and future agreements may not be so easy to secure if Democrats achieve gains in Congress this November. Given that Saudi Arabia’s role in global oil markets isn’t as significant as it once was, and its claims to be a force for stability are looking more dubious than ever, future American leaders may come the question just how useful America’s controversial alliance with the Saudis really is. The Saudis may also come to regret getting exactly what they want from Trump: If he really does sabotage the Iran deal this spring, for instance, it’s likely to only increase European countries’ frustrations with the U.S. and desire to engage Tehran, which may restart its nuclear program without having to worry about multilateral sanctions.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that while Trump has courted the Saudis more aggressively than his predecessors, those presidents made some significant overtures as well. Obama also visited the kingdom in the first year of his presidency and sought to reassure the Saudis of America’s support even as he pursued policies they opposed. It was Obama, after all, who began U.S. support for the Yemen war as a conciliatory gesture around the time of the Iran deal. There was a time when Obama was the president mocked for pandering to Saudi royals. In the end, Saudi frustration with the Iran deal, U.S. backing of the Arab Spring, and tentative policies on Syria outweighed all of Obama’s courtesy calls.

Given how fickle Trump can be about his policy preferences, there’s little reason to assume this beautiful friendship will last indefinitely.