Trump and the Saudis: Why are they such good friends?

Trump and the Saudis: Why are they such good friends?

President Trump and Mohammed bin Salman met at the White House on Tuesday. (Source: CNN) President Trump and Mohammed bin Salman met at the White House on Tuesday. (Source: CNN)

(RNN) – As President Donald Trump hosted Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on Tuesday, he called it “an honor” to host the young Saudi crown prince.

Trump called the U.S.-Saudi alliance a “great friendship.” It was “very, very strained” during the Obama presidency, he said, but now “probably as good as it’s really ever been, and I think will probably only get better.”

Bin Salman returned the sentiment in kind, calling the relationship “really huge and really deep.”

The U.S.-Saudi partnership does indeed appear as close as it perhaps has ever been.

Despite campaign rhetoric, Trump made the Kingdom the destination of his first foreign trip as president, last May. He called the country “magnificent” and remarked on the “grandeur of this remarkable place and the incredible hospitality you have shown us.”

Trump sealed arms deals worth more than $100 billion. He boasted of the “tremendous investments” he’d coaxed from his new friends, and the scores of jobs they would create.

He has further made the Saudis his most trusted collaborators on counterterrorism and Middle East peace. In turn he’s backed their regional efforts against Iran and Qatar, as well as their war in Yemen, and supported bin Salman in his unsparing accumulation of power domestically.

In a world that has often been ambivalent about the president, from Europe to Africa to Asia to Latin America, Trump has found in Saudi Arabia a remarkably enthusiastic partner in which he has invested an outsize chunk of his foreign policy capital.

The Kingdom might seem an unlikely place for Trump to stake his international ambitions, but in fact Trump and the Saudis speak a mutual language deeper than English or Arabic.

A long history

The U.S.-Saudi alliance dates back to 1933 and America’s establishing relations with the modern Saudi state, founded by bin Salman’s grandfather King Abdulaziz.

As a sweetener, Abdulaziz gave a subsidiary of Standard Oil (which later became Chevron) the right to explore for oil in the country’s east. Petroleum became the backbone of the relationship for decades, with the American military protecting Saudi interests and Saudi royals keeping the pipeline open to U.S. politicians.

The state oil behemoth Saudi Aramco even draws its name from the seeds of the alliance – Arab American Company.

Disagreement over the 1973 Arab-Israeli War led to a brief Saudi oil embargo that caused an energy crisis in the U.S., and the 9/11 attacks – in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals – were low points in the relationship. But mostly it has carried along in a businesslike manner.

Trump’s particularly warm embrace, however, is rare for a U.S. president (although George W. Bush’s roots in oil provided the foundation for a close relationship, despite 9/11, as well).

Trump, of course, is especially inclined to appreciate a businesslike relationship.

Like minds

When Trump visited the Kingdom last year, he was effusive in his praise of King Salman and his hosts. Later in the year he expressed his “great confidence” in the king and bin Salman as the latter orchestrated a crackdown that imprisoned hundreds of wealthy and powerful Saudis - including princes - at the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh.

It was officially characterized as an anti-corruption drive, but it faced accusations of brutality and was criticized as more of a power play by bin Salman, to purge potential rivals. Trump nonetheless said: “They know exactly what they are doing.”

This unflinching support has undoubtedly been deeply appreciated by the Saudis.

The Arab word for gulf is “khaleej”, and the Khaleejis – Saudis, Emiratis, Qataris, and so on – place an extraordinary cultural value on a particular kind of propriety.

It is anathema in Gulf Arab society to publicly compromise the dignity of a counterpart. Maintaining "face" is of the utmost importance. 

A 1994 CIA report put it this way:

“Dignity and stature are granted only to those who show themselves as flawless; the society of the Arab world has no place or respect for one whose faults or errors come to public knowledge.”

Trump, likewise, is a man who bristles at public suggestions of fault or error. The president, however, is happy to both give and receive flattery, and frequently boasts of having the best or most of something.

It’s no accident he’s had success making deals in Dubai, a city known for its pursuit of all the biggest and brightest.

President Obama had an icy relationship with the Saudis, balking at the country's human rights record in the kind of rebuke, however soft, considered a serious breach of Khaleeji etiquette. His nuclear deal with Iran was also seen as an egregious betrayal to the Kingdom.

Trump, on the other hand, shows no concern with Saudi domestic policy. He shares their view on Iran and heavily focuses on the economic benefits they can offer America.

"Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth," he said on Tuesday.

It's ultimately a mutually beneficial relationship. The ambitious crown prince, who is in America courting business investment and touting his plan to liberalize the highly conservative Kingdom's economy and society, craves the legitimization a tight bond with the U.S. president provides.

"Some tremendous things have happened for you since your last visit to the White House, when you were — when you were the crown prince, and now you’re beyond the crown prince," Trump told him on Tuesday. "So I want to just congratulate you.  I thought your father made a very wise decision." 

And Trump, for his part, is burnished by the prestige of forging a successful foreign partnership. 

"We understand each other," he said.

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