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Editor’s note: The next president is in for a rough welcome to the Oval Office given the list of immediate crises and slow-burning policy challenges, both foreign and domestic. What should Washington do? Why should the average American care? We’ve set out to clearly define US strategic interests and provide actionable policy solutions to help the new administration build a 2017 agenda that strengthens American leadership abroad while bolstering prosperity at home.
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On November 9, as the stunning results of the US presidential election spread around the globe, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia breathed a sigh of relief. To be sure, after eight years of strained ties with the US, the Saudi government was eager for any alternative to what they perceived as Barack Obama’s fickle presidency.1 But if Hillary Clinton stacked up favorably against her democratic predecessor—she was seen, broadly, as a more dependable partner—her impending presidency was met with little enthusiasm in the kingdom.
Senior Saudi officials observed that a Clinton administration would have pushed too hard on human rights and diplomacy, leveraging military and financial support to the kingdom to coerce domestic political reforms and financial contributions to global causes.2
This sort of US value promotion has always been received with resentment in Saudi Arabia, which views itself as the leader of the Muslim world and is in no position to compromise on values with the West. But it would not be accurate to portray Riyadh’s concerns about a Clinton presidency as strictly ideological. Given low oil prices, the destabilizing (and growing) influence of jihadist groups, and the specter of Iranian hegemony, the kingdom is facing a fateful moment in its history. Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan for introducing modernizing reforms to the country is both a reflection of and a nominal solution to these problems. While promising, however, it could well undermine the very political order it seeks to preserve.
The troubled state of affairs in Saudi Arabia helps explain the Al Saud’s unexpected response to the surprise election of Donald Trump. In the face of Trump’s rhetoric about radical Islam and his attempted rollout of the Muslim ban, Riyadh has kept silent.3 Focusing instead on core policy concerns, the Saudis have actually expressed marked optimism about the Trump administration and its “America first” approach to foreign policy.4 Specifically, Trump’s disdain for meddling in the internal affairs of foreign nations and his tough, no-nonsense approach to ISIS and Iran are music to their ears.
President Trump and his administration likewise have signaled that they welcome a reset of the US-Saudi relationship.5 In their view, Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, is crucial to the effort to combat ISIS and Iran, which the new administration views, unsurprisingly, as the most pressing challenges to stability in the region.6
Moreover, at a more fundamental level, the White House embraces the view that the kingdom is an anchor of geopolitical stability in the Middle East.7 Trump’s advisers recognize that the potential consequences of the kingdom’s collapse are dire: an emboldened and hegemonic Iran, the proliferation of jihadi groups throughout the region, and a destabilizing power vacuum in the Gulf.8
Their recognition of Riyadh’s complicated relationship with radical Islam also underpins this assessment. While Saudi Arabia has been the object of criticism for both its Wahhabist proselytizing abroad and its compromising ties to jihadists, the Senior Council of Ulema, the kingdom’s highest religious body, stands on the front lines of the Muslim world’s theological disputes over the validity of radical Islamist ideologies. The Saudi Ulema’s beliefs and practices may not accord with Western conceptions of liberalism, but their religious authority and leadership represent an important bulwark against the proliferation of jihadist groups.9 If, as is oft said, this fight can only be won within the Muslim world, the Saudi Ulema will need to play a central role.
Lastly, the White House considers Saudi Arabia a partner that can help President Trump deliver on his domestic economic vision. With a growing sovereign fund that potentially exceeds $2 trillion, Saudi Arabia holds tremendous economic clout; unsurprisingly, the administration sees immense value in keeping the kingdom investing in the US.10 Further, despite significant strides toward energy self-sufficiency in the US, the Saudis continue to play a central role in global energy markets. Their cooperation on oil pricing could be decisive for growth during the Trump era. Riyadh’s preference to peg both its currency and its oil sales to the US dollar over an alternative is also beneficial, instilling greater confidence in the US dollar.11
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