Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who won a landslide reelection victory just a few days earlier, criticised the visit as “just a show”. While Gulf Arab leaders saw it as a pivot away from the Barack Obama administration’s Middle East policy, which was perceived by some as pro-Tehran.
What is clear is that the Trump visit will have a long-term effect on the Iran–Saudi relationship, with wider implications for the entire Middle East.
Romance in the kingdom of Saud
As noted by the New York Times, Trump’s “Islam speech” was not actually a speech about Islam. Nor did it mention the many critical issues of human rights, suppression of opposition groups and women’s freedoms in some Muslim societies. Instead, it conferred a sense of legitimacy to oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia, further endangering democratic rights and pluralism.
Trump did however point a finger at Iran and Palestine’s Hamas movement for breeding and supporting terrorism, evoking strong reactions in the region.
On the business side, the trip resulted in signing deals worth US$380 billion, of which US$110 billion accounts for Saudi military purchases from the US. The arms deal places Saudi Arabia in a position of strength and further militarises the Middle East.
Former US president Barack Obama sold almost US$100 billion in arms to the Saudis, pushing Iran to approach Russia and China to maintain the balance of power in the Gulf.
And now there’s a concern that the next US arms shipments to Saudi Arabia might push the two rivals toward war, spilling more blood and wrecking havoc in the entire region.
Just three weeks before Trump’s visit, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman ruled out the possibility of dialogue and hinted at a possible war with Iran.
“We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “We’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran”.
A common hatred for Iran’s influence abroad
The Saudis see Trump’s tilt towards them as a return to the traditional friendship between the two countries, if not a new beginning in their bilateral relationship with Washington.
They see it as Trump’s response to their desperate call for help against Iran’s so-called “malign influence” on Arab countries, as expressed by British Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this year.
A noted Saudi journalist writes: “Trump’s Saudi visit marks the beginning of a new phase and establishes the foundation of strong economic cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the US to safeguard interests and build collective national security.”
Under the so called “Salman doctrine” (named after King Salman bin Abdulaziz), Saudi Arabia has pursued a muscular foreign policy to face off Iran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. They did this as the Obama administration drifted away from traditional ties and even told the Saudis, much to their anger, to share the Middle East with the Iranians.
What has seriously prodded the Saudis to approach the avowedly anti-Iran Trump administration is their inability to roll back Iran’s influence and hold the Iranians at bay.
The war in Yemen has reached a deadlock, the Sunni militant ISIL group is on the verge of total elimination in Iraq and developments in Syria following the fall of Aleppo to Iran and Russia-backed government troops in December 2016 have proved catastrophic to Saudi regional foreign policy ambitions.
Trump, who is blamed for siding with Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shi’a Iran, is apparently the last hope for Riyadh to decisively push back its nemesis Iran.
…and at home
Adding a new dimension to the Iran–Saudi rivalry is a set of domestic considerations, primarily originating from Saudi Arabia. First and foremost, there is the big question of regime security and survival.
Domestically, all political groups in Saudi Arabia, including the anti-royal family opposition al-Sahwa (awakening) movement are vehemently opposed to the Shi’as. And they see Iran standing firmly behind Shi’a interests in all the states in the region.
The Saudi nationalist narrative is that Shi’a Iran is the Middle East’s primary anti-Sunni spoiler and must be confronted. That gives the Saudi regime a rallying point to deflect domestic pressures and to ensure its continued survival.
Despite having a bigger budget attributed to defence, Riyadh also worries about Iran’s military edge, in both the tactical and strategic senses.
Battle-hardened Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) generals now actively advise the different Shi’a militia groups in Iraq and Syria fighting against ISIL and other rebel groups.
Saudi Arabia has no equivalent forces to back up its regional security interests.
Tackling Iran in the Middle East
The Iran–Saudi matrix of hostility draws in the Iran–US animosity on Saudi Arabia’s side.
Sworn enemies since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the US sees the country as a major stumbling block to its regional interests and the survival of Israel, a country often rhetorically threatened by Iranian leaders.
The second term of the Obama administration, which saw the signing of a landmark nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015 was an exception. It indicated a foreign policy pivot away from Saudi Arabia and toward Iran.
Today, Iran poses a huge foreign policy challenge for America. Its enduring model of Islamic government, rejecting the Western model of secular democratic government, marks a big blind spot in America’s so-called liberal international order.
And, in the four decades of its existence, the Islamic Republic has augmented its defence lines extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. There is now an extensive network of Shi’a militia groups in Iraq and Syria connecting them to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
For the Trump administration, Iran is a threat, especially in view of the former’s special relationship to Israel.
The new American president has made clear that he has chosen Saudi Arabia, as a next door neighbour of Iran, to protect US interests in the region while serving its own agenda and geopolitical ambitions.