By Ola Salem in Washington, D.C.
Relationship between America’s First Family and the ruling royals in KSA marks a turning point in GCC-US ties
US president Donald Trump flies out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Monday, leaving behind a hue of optimism in the Gulf.
Observers and politicians see a potential for a new American foreign policy in the region, away from inaction, indecisiveness and reluctance that, in their view, defined the Barack Obama era.
The weekend’s events affirmed US commitment to support the Arab world in their fight against terrorism, their fight in Yemen, to push-back Iran’s influence in the Gulf and support the kingdom’s military capacity with defence deals.
In what was repeatedly described by analysts as a monumental turning point in US-Saudi relations, the Gulf state spared no costs to roll out the most lavish celebrations in honour of the president’s first overseas visit.
Scenes broadcast from the Saudi capital resembled those of a traditional Arab wedding, with a line of limousines; sword and traditional dances; music concerts; grand buffets; and a red carpet with flower girls. To top it off, the president was given a gold medal, the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud, the nation’s highest honour - much like a dowry.
King Salman himself greeted Trump and First Lady, Melania, at the tarmac as they disembarked Air Force One, a stark difference to how relations had ended with his predecessor, Obama, who reportedly was not greeted by the king during his last visit to the kingdom.
"There was a lot of excitement from all sides,” Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Saudi political analyst and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said from Riyadh. “The reception was very much unprecedented in terms of festivities. I have not seen something like this before.”
Shortly after touch-down in the kingdom, Trump got down to business and signed more than $380 billion in investment deals, including the much-anticipated $109.7 billion defence and military deal - the largest single arms deal in US history.
Paul R Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University and a 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where he worked on counterterrorism and the Middle East, said Trump wanted to differentiate himself from the Obama administration and to “make it clear that he was on their side”.
“To announce an arms deal is to announce solidarity,” he said.
He added that it would not surprise him if the kingdom’s military was not fully trained to use all the equipment to its capacity, but the deal involves provisions to build the capacity of the Saudi forces.
“In relationships where arms’ trade has been used, such deals are a symbol and expression that people on both sides were working more closely and at a far greater capacity to [defeat] their common enemy,” he said.
Pillar said defence cooperation between the two nations would be at a new scale, and possible joint military exercises and training could be part of the package.
“It will go further than anything in the past,” he said.
Ali Shihabi, the executive director of Washington-based Arabian Foundation, said the war in Yemen allowed Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at large to realise their military blind-spots.
“Certainly it is a risk that advanced weapons cannot be fully absorbed, but GCC militaries have gone up a sharp learning curve in the Yemen war and absorptive capacity is increasing rapidly.”
The next day, Trump gave a 33-minute speech opening the Arab-Islamic-American summit that resonated with Arab leaders, acknowledging, for the first time, that the greatest victims of extremism were Muslims themselves.
He demanded that the leaders of the more than 50 Muslim nations step up efforts to drive out terrorists and extremists, repeating five times the phrase “drive them out”.
He also echoed words of his administration that Iran was the main exporter of terrorism and the biggest threat to the region, providing terrorists with “safe harbour, financial backing and the social standing needed for recruitment”.
From the moment Trump took office, the Saudi government has been increasingly impressed by his administration.
In February following Iran’s ballistic missile launch, the Trump administration imposed new sanctions on the country. Shortly after, the US defence secretary, James Mattis, said Iran was "the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world”. It was such pronouncements that raised the Gulf states’ hopes that the Trump administration was different from the previous one in terms of how it views the Iranian regime.
In March, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who is also the minister of defence, travelled to Washington to meet with Trump in what would have seemed to be a conciliation meeting that set the tone for a new relationship.
In April, Washington surprised the world again when Trump ordered the launch of 59 cruise missiles on an air base in Homs province following a chemical attack by the Iranian-backed Syrian government on Khan Sheikhoun in the Syrian province of Idlib.
Not long after, the Saudi King Salman appointed his son, Prince Khalid bin Salman, to head their diplomatic mission in Washington, allowing for a much closer point of contact between the two countries.
Talks for an arms deal then followed in the US capital, where the Saudi government seemed to also appreciate the ability to deal family-to-family with the US, with reports that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-law, negotiated the deal and even made a call to ask for a discount on behalf of the Saudis.
The summit also saw the signing of an agreement by Arab nations to curb the financing of terrorism, with the establishment of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Centre, to be headed by the US and Saudi Arabia.
Shihabi said Saudi Arabia was currently taking the lead in combating terrorism financing.
“Terror financing is 99 percent eliminated. Last year the US assistant secretary of the treasury told congress that Saudi is a world leader in fighting terrorism financing,” he said.
Trump concluded his visit with the inauguration of the Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology, Etidal, which means moderation.
Reports suggested that participants in the summit would announce a plan to establish an “Arab NATO”, but no reference was made to it this weekend. Analysts say that the arms deal and the existing Saudi-led Islamic coalition, which takes part in the campaign in Yemen, could be the foundation for such a force.
“I am speculating: what we are already seeing in the region is similar to a NATO in structure,” Alyahya said. “It could happen.”
Trump will renege on his dealings with the Saudis. The 'art of the deal' is to not pay your bills.