A look at the issues facing US-Saudi ties under Trump

AP News
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Posted: Mar 13, 2017 2:04 PM
A look at the issues facing US-Saudi ties under Trump

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — When President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on Thursday, the new commander-in-chief will be laying the groundwork for his administration's relations with a Middle Eastern powerhouse and the world's top oil exporter.

It will be Trump's first meeting with a royal from a Western-allied Gulf nation since his inauguration. The prince's visit offers the U.S. president an opportunity to present his policy goals for the region to one of Saudi Arabia's most influential figures.

As second-in-line to the throne, 31-year-old Prince Mohammed also serves as defense minister and is in charge of overhauling the kingdom's economy. And similar to Trump's relationship with his eldest children, Prince Mohammed shares a close bond with his father, King Salman, and has the monarch's ear on important matters.

With a myriad of global and regional issues to discuss, here's a look at the openings and obstacles the U.S.-Saudi relationship faces under Trump:

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WHAT ARE THE COMMON GOALS?

Saudi Arabia has welcomed Trump's hard rhetoric on Iran, which stands in contrast to the Obama administration's efforts in securing a nuclear deal with Tehran — despite strident objections from Riyadh.

The Trump administration also included Iran in its travel ban for people seeking new visas.

Saudi Arabia views the Shiite-ruled nation's influence in Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria as a danger to its security.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said last month that Trump's language on containing Iran's reach is "exactly" the Saudi position, adding that the kingdom is "very optimistic about the Trump administration."

In a call between Trump and King Salman in January, the two agreed to back safe zones in Syria and Yemen, according to a White House statement.

Under Trump, Washington has continued to support a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen that has been criticized for its devastating humanitarian toll on the impoverished nation.

Intelligence sharing on al-Qaida and other extremist threats is expected to continue under Trump, and the kingdom remains part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State targets in Syria.

Fahad Nazer, a political consultant for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said he thinks that on the part of the Trump administration there is an appreciation for the history of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and for the role Saudi Arabia can have in stabilizing the Middle East. He emphasizes that his views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Saudi government.

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WHERE ARE THERE HURDLES?

Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and director of the Center for Gulf Affairs at the Middle East Institute, says while the mood is still optimistic between Washington and Riyadh, there are "some flashing yellow lights, if not red lights."

For one, he said there appears to be an expectation from the White House that the Saudis and other Gulf nations will pay more for U.S. protection and security.

And while the appointment of former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson as secretary of state may sit well with the Saudis, the Trump administration's energy plan involves maximizing U.S. domestic production of shale oil and gas, which threatens Saudi Arabia's ability to profit off of higher oil prices.

Other areas of potential divergence include any expectations from the White House that Saudi Arabia would formalize relations with Israel in the absence of a Palestinian peace deal.

There is also the potential for anti-Muslim sentiment among some in Trump's inner circle to complicate the Saudi-U.S. relationship, said Feirestein.

Also looming is U.S. legislation allowing the kingdom to be sued for the 9/11 attacks, which could also have negative repercussions on ties.

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WHAT ABOUT SYRIA?

Perhaps the thorniest element of the U.S.-Saudi relationship going forward stems from the Trump administration's apparently close ties with Russia. Trump has spoken glowingly of Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed hopes for closer cooperation with Moscow.

But Russia is a strong backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the Russian military intervention into the Syrian civil war, starting in September 2015, helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, openly supports armed rebel groups in Syria and has repeatedly called for regime change in Damascus.

With the Syrian government now increasingly in control, Trump and his Saudi counterparts could struggle to find common ground on the issue.

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Follow Aya Batrawy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ayaelb