Time will tell, but cries of “victory in Washington” by Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman seemed hollow and perhaps even apocryphal. He needed some sign of success when he emerged from his White House meeting with U.S. Pres. Donald Trump on March 14, 2017: Saudi Arabia is running out of options and is pushing its traditional allies - some of which are not happy with it - to show solidarity, particularly over the wars in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. And at a time when the Kingdom’s economic fortunes are delicate and worsening, presaging internal political pressures.
Prince Mohammed seemed to want to sweep Pres. Trump into the Saudi camp - and to speak for all Muslims and how the Trump Administration would be good for them — but he was, in fact anxious to exorcise the President’s apparently blossoming friendship with Egyptian Pres. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, now Prince Mohammed’s nemesis. So the Saudi-Egyptian animosity extended to Washington as it became clear that the new U.S. Administration would not automatically continue any Middle Eastern policies of the former U.S. Administration.
The stakes are of global significance to the U.S., but if Washington had to choose, it would choose the geopolitical (Mediterranean-Suez-Red Sea) and cultural weight of Egypt.
Saudi Arabia’s recent rivalry with Egypt — or, rather, the falling out between Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed and Egyptian Pres. al-Sisi — has meant that the government of each state has attempted to sway the U.S. to its side, but with Washington giving away little as to its preference. It does not wish to fully alienate Saudi Arabia at this stage, or its neighbor and fellow-Wahhabist state, Qatar, but Egypt’s strategic position cannot be ignored.
Thus Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with U.S. Pres. Donald Trump on March 14, 2017, and claimed that the meeting was “an historic turning point” in U.S.-Saudi relations. But White House sources told Defense & Foreign Affairs that it was nothing of the kind, and that - as Pres. Trump’s body language during the meetings showed - he did not feel any chemistry with the young Saudi official. Despite this, the Prince authorized a post-meeting statement which said that Donald Trump was “a true friend of Muslims who will serve the Muslim world in an unimaginable manner”, and that the meeting was “a huge success” and an “historic turning point in bilateral relations the two countries”.
Official White House statements were cool. The Trump team was unimpressed by the Deputy Crown Prince. On the other side, Pres. Trump’s first action on January 23, 2017 (his first day in office), was to call Egyptian Pres. al-Sisi, and positive comments ensued from both sides. Pres. al-Sisi had visited Mr. Trump before Mr. Trump took office, and would meet him again during an official visit to Washington on April 1-4, 2017. Significantly, both the Saudi and Egyptian leaderships had turned their backs on the former U.S. Administration of Pres. Barrack Obama, but for different reasons. Now, the Trump Administration was attempting to determine what was likely to be the most expedient U.S. strategy for the region going forward, and being coerced by Saudi Arabia (and Turkey and the UAE) into a wider conflict in Yemen and Syria/Iraq was not seen as beneficial.
But Prince Mohammed had already committed Saudi Arabia to a path from which it was difficult to retire gracefully. As a result, Riyadh was pushing its erstwhile friends deeper into a commitment to fight its wars with it, or for it. Prince Mohmamed continues to demand that Pakistan enter the conflict in Yemen, despite the fact that this was being promoted by Riyadh as a war against the Shi’a sect of Islam (and therefore against Iran), while Pakistan has a significant (20 percent plus) Shi’a minority. To enter the war in Yemen would, for Pakistan, possibly precipitate civil war at home. And yet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has benefitted from his long friendship with Saudi Arabia, has difficulty now in rejecting the demands of Riyadh.
Thus, not only in Washington, but in other corridors of power, Saudi Arabia’s demands for support are not being well received, and are perceived as shrill and desperate. Increasingly, Washington, in particular, sees Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar at an opposing side in the wars against DI’ISH (Islamic State) as well as in Yemen and Libya. Yemen has already reverted, essentially, to at least its former two-state identities.
Pakistan, too, has to consider its longtime relations with Iran, which Saudi Arabia has now pledged itself to destroy.
Indeed, there is a gradual dawning, even in Washington, that, geopolitically, Iran is more important than Saudi Arabia, despite the reality that the Iranian clerics — who came to power in 1979 because of the active and deliberate steps of then-U.S. Pres. Jimmy Carter — have proven to be the major obstacle to the restoration of a stable Iranian strategic position, and the question of Iranian nuclear weapons is politically (although perhaps not militarily) vexing for the U.S.
Washington is now re-examining how well U.S. Pres. Richard Nixon (1969-74) was able to balance Iran and Saudi Arabia. But, then, he was able to deal with the Shah of Iran and Foreign Minister Ardeshir Zahedi on the one hand, and King Faisal bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud (1964- 75) on the other. In all this, whither Russia and the People’s Republic of China, The Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and the Levant are very much in play, as is Turkey.