US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh on May 21. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Regardless of the theatrics and the billion-dollar deals, Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia has accomplished one thing: reversal of the Obama administration’s policy of gradual engagement with Iran and distancing the US  from Saudi Arabia.

If there ever was any doubt about the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) being a purely anti-terror coalition, it was effectively put to rest when the US president and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman chose to castigate Iran, accusing it of being the sole source of terrorism in the region.

Quite a contrast to Barack Obama’s last visit to Saudi Arabia, which had been overshadowed by the myriad tensions emerging in part from the way both governments viewed the Middle East and in part from the then resurrected spectre of the attacks of September 11, 2001;  long-classified documents from a congressional report suggested Saudi Arabia’s possible role in the atrocity.

While this was the culmination of tensions during the last days of Obama’s presidency, a lot of other things had already happened, creating a wedge between both countries.

For instance, not only had Obama refused to launch an invasion of Syria back in 2013, but also held behind-the-scenes negotiations with Tehran in Oman in 2015 about the future of its nuclear program, leading the Saudis to view Obama as a “traitor” who had turned his back on the otherwise “time-tested” and decades-old alliance.

Needless to say, throughout Trump’s visit, any reference to these questions was nowhere to be seen. On the contrary, the primary focus was on the establishment of a grand alliance under the auspices of the US, with the latter tacitly taking responsibility for providing what Trump called “lots of beautiful military equipment.”

The US president said during his visit what the Saudis had been wanting to hear the most since at least the beginning of the war in Syria, marking the opening of a much deeper relationship between them

After all, the US president said during his visit what the Saudis had been wanting to hear the most since at least the beginning of the war in Syria, marking the opening of a much deeper relationship between them. This is pretty evident from Trump’s choice of Saudi as his first stop on his first overseas trip as president of the United States, and his willingness to get “Islamized” at the hands of the Saudi king, and beat about the Iranian bush on an unprecedented scale while selling military equipment worth US$110 billion.

Military co-operation notwithstanding, the US also is going to assist Riyadh in Saudi Arabia’s modernization plan, locally known as Vision 2030, a brainchild of Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Deals worth US$15 billion are for that very purpose, involving a number of American companies including General Electric and Boeing.

While General Electric is going to assist Riyadh in developing such areas as oil and gas production, petrochemistry and medicine, a number of deals were signed in such areas as joint investment projects, high-tech development, infrastructure and the housing sector. Saudi Arabia is going to improve its transportation capabilities; therefore it’s planning to buy new airliners for Saudi Airlines from Boeing.

And the list goes on with such companies as Neibors, McDermott, Honeywell, Schlumberger, Halliburton, Weatherford, Baker Hughes and Emerson all getting involved in the Vision 2030 program. This, in turn, is a part of both countries’ resolve to take their bilateral trade to US$400 billion.

Needless to say, this revamped relationship is based upon shared hostility with Iran and seeks to undo the balance of power that has tilted to the latter’s favor in past two years or so.

The visit, the billion-dollar defense deals and economic cooperation exceeding a whopping US$400 billion in the near future notwithstanding, the question remains: will Saudi Arabia and the US be able to successfully establish the “Arab Nato” and work out differences piercing apart the “Sunni coalition?”

Turkey and Qatar defend the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt oppose this group categorically. There are also Iran’s neighbors – Iraq, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan -who will not want to spoil their relations with Tehran because these countries don’t share Saudi Arabia’s hostility toward Iran.

But the counter question is: does Saudi Arabi need all of these countries’ support to follow its own ambitions?

While Saudi may need at least some of these countries in the long run to maintain its influence in the region, its immediate objective was to re-align itself with the US to reverse the rapidly increasing Iranian influence both in Syria and in Saudi’s backyard, Yemen.

Therefore, for Saudi success is to be measured not by its ability to enlist the support of 40 or more Muslim countries, but by its ability to coax the Trump administration into fighting, directly and indirectly, a regional war that Saudi had almost lost during the Obama years.

After eight years of lackluster relations during the Obama years, Saudi Arabia has finally found in Trump a reliable ally. The unwritten promise to sell Saudi Arabia, over a period, US$5 trillion in advanced arms, previously denied to any foreign government, speaks volumes about the immediate success of Saudi in having the US fully on its side.

For the US, on the other hand, Riyadh wields a lot of influence in the Arab world, meaning it can assist Washington in returning to the region, which the Obama administration lost to Moscow when the latter became involved in Syria in 2015.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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