A First Visit: President Trump to Saudi Arabia

Dr. John Duke Anthony

Published: Updated:

As a candidate for the Oval Office, Donald Trump was not shy about criticizing Saudi Arabia. Contexts change, though, and as President his administration has refrained from unjustified, unnecessary, and provocative statements in this regard.

Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and home to the faith’s two holiest places, is a country that is vital to America’s national interests and strategic concerns. It has been one of the foremost US national security partners for the past eight decades – longer than any other developing nation.

If America is to be “great again,” it can and must be greater in very particular ways. One of which is to be far greater than derogatory and antagonistic rhetoric toward a country central to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who represent nearly a quarter of humanity.

By selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on his historic visit, the first official one to any foreign country, President Trump has been prudent to seize an opportunity to turn a new and more positive page towards Arabs and Muslims in the region and beyond. The President’s visit has a chance to begin healing wounds that have been inflicted on Muslims the world over.

A Historic Visit

Selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on this historic visit – when the American President could easily and without controversy have selected any one among numerous other countries – sends a strong message to the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.

The announcement of his visit to the country has already had a powerfully uplifting and relevant symbolic effect. Its impact has been greatest on the Kingdom and its neighbors.

Peoples of this region include large numbers that have longed for this kind of American leadership for quite some time. The visit speaks volumes as to how vital these countries are to the United States. It underscores their critical importance to America’s friends, allies, and the rest of the world.

Make no mistake about it: of the planet’s 212 countries and the 193 members of the United Nations, all but a few would want to host the president of the most economically, financially, scientifically, technologically, educationally, and militarily powerful nation.

What further distinguishes the President’s visit to Riyadh is its multiple benefits. Indeed, he is scheduled to meet not only with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, but also the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). (Established in 1981, the GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.)

Peoples of this region include large numbers that have longed for this kind of American leadership for quite some time.

Americans have long been mistakenly accustomed to thinking that the largest number of US armed forces abroad are in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. For some time, however, this has no longer been true – they are stationed in the GCC. Thus, the additional significance of the visit to the Kingdom’s capital, which is also the GCC’s headquarters.

Mr. Trump’s meetings with these influential additional leaders in a matter of days ought not to be lost on anyone. Coming at this time, the President’s visit sends a strong message of American engagement, projection, and commitment to the internationally concerted, US-led action against violent extremism.

Preparations and Goals

The visit conveys a much welcomed determination for the United States to join with GCC and other Arab and Islamic country efforts to push back against Iran’s interference in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

In fact, GCC foreign ministers recently met in Riyadh to discuss the visit. They convened with a view to placing their countries’ relations with the United States on a firmer foundation than what they came to be in the last year of the Obama administration.

A public statement released by GCC Secretary General Dr. Abdul Latif bin Rashid Al Zayani noted that the foreign ministers would “explore the on-going preparations for the consultative meeting of the GCC leaders, scheduled for Riyadh, in addition to the US-GCC Summit and Arab-Islamic-US Summit to be held in Riyadh on Sunday during the upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump to the Kingdom.” H.E. Dr. Al Zayani added that the GCC’s foreign ministers would also discuss the latest regional and international developments, together with how best to enhance their, America’s, and other countries’ global efforts against radical militancy.

The overall goal of the upcoming meetings in Riyadh will be to further advance the special strategic partnership between the United States and the Kingdom. Both sides acknowledge that specific areas in need of heightened ties include defense and security as well as trade, investment, and economic cooperation.

A Saudi Arabian goal of immense importance is to obtain an official American endorsement as well as practical support for “Vision 2030,” the country’s massive economic transformation plan.

In addition, the President will meet on Sunday with GCC leaders and the representatives of 55 Muslim majority countries.

For the significance of such an event one need look no further than to recognize that no meeting quite like this one has occurred before.

On one hand, an objective for this part of the visit will be to seek these nations’ assistance against the threats posed by radical extremists and Iranian interference. On the other, it will be to help bring an end to the bloodshed currently occurring in five of the Arab world’s 22 countries.

A New Regional Security Architecture?

Little known to many is that Saudi Arabia bears one of the highest defense burdens in the world.

The International Institute of Strategic Studies noted that the Kingdom’s military spending accounted for 12.7% of its GDP in 2015 and 8.9% in 2016, ranking it fourth behind the United States, China, and Russia. Even so, and despite the global decrease in the price of oil, Riyadh remains one of the largest consumers of American Foreign Military Sales (FMS).

Furthering this side of the relationship, President Trump is expected to arrive with an additional $100 billion in FMS packages that include ships, missile defense, and maritime security systems.

The significance of the President achieving a commercial deal of this size would not be lost on defense strategists and analysts. It would represent a significant reversal of the White House’s stance near the end of the Obama administration.

The visit conveys a much welcomed determination for the United States to join with GCC and other Arab and Islamic country efforts to push back against Iran’s interference in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

What other meaning should one read into this component of the President’s visit?

For starters, Mr. Trump’s time in Riyadh would signal US administration agreement that Saudi Arabia is critical to countering Iran’s efforts to undermine regimes friendly to the United States. Straightening the military relationship between Washington and Riyadh would further align American and coalition countries in their joint quest to defeat ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other violent extremist groups.

As much as if not more than anything else, the President’s visit is significant because it should help to focus everyone’s attention on an important challenge: for the participants to jointly commit to a future objective, often overlooked, that has vital implications for all concerned.

This would be the summiteers’ collective vow to ensure that what must come after ongoing operations is a significantly reduced chance and capacity for violent militants to threaten these key American allies, or any other nations, again.

To these and related ends, speculation – long bantered about by Americans and others who would hope to become financial beneficiaries – has it that the United States may encourage a GCC-centric Arab “NATO” arrangement. The strategic military goal of such an undertaking, which would be to further ensure regional security and peace, is unassailable.

Without these two realities – security and peace – in place and maintained over time, there can be no prospects for sustained stability, modernization, and development.

Standing in the way of such an achievement, however, are decades-old geo-political obstacles anchored deeply in pan-Arab sentiments that have repeatedly weighed in against such an arrangement being forged.

None should doubt for a moment the complexities entailed in being able to reach such an accord. Neither should one try to gloss over the kinds of difficulties that could be expected were it achieved.

Views From Qatar

These thoughts are penned from the Arab State of Qatar, situated smack in the middle of the western side of the Gulf and directly across from Iran.

The past few days have provided opportunities for this author to speak about the President’s visit with high-ranking Qatari officials and those upon whom they rely for advice and recommendations.

All are mindful and in varying ways proud that Qatar hosts the United States Central Command’s forward deployed military presence. All are also aware and appreciative of the fact that the Command’s official Area of Responsibility includes all six GCC countries, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond.

What stands out most, however, is that almost all, too, have for some time longed for a more robust American defense and other leadership role in this part of the world. This is but indicative of the hopes that many in this region have for the success of the President’s eminent visit.

A retired Qatari petroleum executive, who was not authorized to speak for the record and who spoke to me privately, echoed the sentiments of numerous others.

“A strong America is essential for a strong world,” he said. “We badly want and need such a world. A weak America is a recipe for disaster. It is an invitation for other countries – Iran in our region, Russia here and others there – behaving in ways that intimidate and undermine confidence in the future.”

“Now, though,” he continued, “one can sense a change. Indeed, in practically every GCC country in the last month or so, Iran has been less mischievous than before. We think it’s a direct correlation between Trump’s coming and Obama’s leaving.”

Vision 2030 – Opportunities for Enhanced US Bilateral Trade and Economic Relations

Another topic that will be discussed by President Trump and his Saudi Arabian hosts is how and what the implications are of the Kingdom’s economy undergoing such immense and far-reaching change. The transformation is being guided by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and other officials.

Released 13 months ago, Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” represents a massive shift away from dependence on a commodity closely tied to the shifts of external markets. Coupled with 70% of its population under the age of 30 years old, Saudi Arabia in this regard and in numerous other ways has started planning for the future in an unprecedented manner.

Never before has this writer seen anything as bold, sweeping, and visionary as what the Kingdom is trying to achieve.

For background and context, in 1950 the Kingdom had a population of 3.9 million people. The number of inhabitants now is nearly 30 million.

Diversification, privatization, replacing foreign workers with nationals, and improving incomes and living standards for the country’s citizens are among the parts of the newly minted comprehensive plan.

There is no question that the transformation plan represents an unprecedented opening for companies. US manufacturers, retailers, and service providers stand to benefit substantially.

Never before has this writer seen anything as bold, sweeping, and visionary as what the Kingdom is trying to achieve.

These and other important private sector actors are looking for talent in places they have never looked before. Those doing so envision potential gains from employing a workforce with a high proportion of graduates from American institutions of higher learning.

According to an unofficial study by a former nationally-prominent deputy minister, such graduates exceed 300,000.

If accurate, this has to be one of the largest number of US-educated and trained university, Saudi Aramco, and a wide variety of technical school graduates living and working in one country anywhere in the world.

The opportunities from this perspective alone – and the chance to build upon them – are numerous and staggering in scope. These Saudi Arabians constitute not only a massive US-produced human resource base – they include tens of thousands who are unabashedly nostalgic about their time in the United States.

Untold thousands of the Kingdom’s citizens are highly vocal about their almost unadulterated fondness for the American people. Their emotions are rooted deep in the times and kinds of teachers, foreign student advisers, and others with whom they met and spent such quality time with when they were transitioning from their post-secondary school studies to adulthood.

Not far back, more than 100,000 of these Saudi Arabians had reportedly purchased residences in places all over America. Impressive numbers of these individuals have done so with a view to locating as near as possible to where they had gone to school before. For decades they have been bringing their spouses and children with them to America.

Together, they have basked in a country and with a people dear to their heart. Not one among them is embarrassed to admit with a pride that is often something greater than many an American tends to admit. This is that during what were the most impressionable years of their earlier preparatory life, the United States, as a country and a people, made an indelible and lasting impression upon them.

Indeed, America was the place away from home whose people, in what at first was a strange and foreign land, they had most come to love and not on their life would they ever forget.

This writer has said it often before. Each day since the late 1970s has been witness to a phenomenon likely experienced in few other countries. For nearly forty years, a greater number of American university graduates from Saudi Arabia with advanced degrees have served in their country’s Cabinet, or Council of Ministers, than there have been officials serving in the US Cabinet with advanced degrees from anywhere.

Figures pertaining to the 150 Members of the Kingdom’s Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council), the nearest deliberative body to the American Congress, are as astounding if not more so. Perhaps 90% have their doctoral degrees from universities in the United States. In dramatic contrast, the number of Congressmen with graduate degrees from anywhere is massively fewer.

Human Resource Challenges and Opportunities

To be sure, no country’s leaders who seek to make life better for their citizens are devoid of defect.

Mistakes are made by people who are active and try to improve things; those whose errors are few or none tend to create little or nothing of value that impacts the lives of others.

This said, few could readily find fault for the Kingdom approaching its challenges in an innovative spirit.

Saudi Arabians constitute not only a massive US-produced human resource base – they include tens of thousands who are unabashedly nostalgic about their time in the United States.

But one example among many others is that US-trained and educated Saudi Arabians citizens who are still in the United States are being encouraged to participate in internships with American companies before returning home.

Indeed, a Center for Career Development exists at the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in Washington. The Center interacts and liaises with US companies already conducting or looking to do business in the Kingdom.

Each side recognizes the value of such opportunities.

Growing numbers are eager to reap the advantages and leverages that abound in both directions. Not least among the mutual advantages and potential material gain is that there is no obligation to the other by either of the parties. The host corporation doesn’t have to offer further employment or the intern to accept it, if offered.

The students are already in the United States. They are vouchsafed for by the Saudi Arabian Embassy. The intra-US travel cost per intern is minimal. And there are no undue complications in the process of extending the students’ visas, in cases where this might be necessary.

US-trained and educated Saudi Arabians citizens who are still in the United States are being encouraged to participate in internships with American companies before returning home.

Opportunities abound for US-Saudi Arabian partnership and engagement, and effective utilization of the Kingdom’s human resources is an important aspect of the changes underway.

Economic Trends to Watch

Saudi Arabia is seeking over $200 billion through the privatization of its energy, health, education, agriculture, mining, and numerous other sectors.

In addition, five percent of Saudi Aramco – the world’s wealthiest company worth more than a trillion dollars – will be sold through the Kingdom’s and select foreign stock markets.

Proceeds are destined for Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, slated to amass the world’s largest sovereign wealth holdings. The funds expected from the sales will not lie idle long. The forecast is that a large portion of the anticipated revenue is certain to increase the Kingdom’s already massive investments in the United States.

Such are among the achievements and statements of intent that President Trump’s team anticipates being able to announce during the upcoming visit.

A growing American urge to invest in the Kingdom – and vice versa – is therefore obvious. The interest is marked by US financial firms rapidly moving to establish a foothold in the country. The confidence of business representatives on both sides is buoyed by awareness that Saudi Arabia continues to produce nearly one third of all OPEC member-country oil currently exported to global markets.

All of this is in keeping with Mr. Trump’s wanting to promote his “American First” ideology.

But one among other paths towards doing so would be for him to find ways to incentivize the Kingdom to increase substantially the extent of its US monetary assets in the United States. A perennially profitable set of holdings are US Treasury instruments, heightened to seek greater levels of purchases, deposits in US banks, and investments in American financial markets.

A Wider View

In historical terms, President Trump’s visit represents an opportunity not quite on a par with President Roosevelt’s unprecedented, prodigious, and far-reaching meeting with King Salman’s father in February 1945. This said, its potential significance appears to be tilted in that direction.

Certainly, there is no question that there has been nothing like that meeting at Great Bitter Lake since. Instead, far from the atmosphere of President Roosevelt’s meeting with modern Arabia’s and the Gulf’s most powerful and influential monarch, what one has in this instance is something profoundly and categorically different.

This moment finds a President in domestic trouble but on the threshold of what, barring a serious mishap, could be one of the more phenomenal moments in contemporary US-Arab relations.

This article was first published by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations on May 18, 2017.


Dr. John Duke Anthony is the Founding President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. On June 22, 2000, on his first official state visit to the United States, H.M. King Muhammad VI of Morocco knighted Dr. Anthony, bestowing upon him Morocco's highest award for excellence. Dr. Anthony currently serves on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy and its Subcommittee on Sanctions (with special reference to Iran). He is the only American to have been invited to each of the Gulf Cooperation Council's Ministerial and Heads of State Summits since the GCC's inception in 1981.

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