Saudi Arabia had high hopes that President Donald J. Trump would restore an alliance that had diminished during the previous administration. Greeted with the highest level of pomp and circumstance, the American president was personally met by 81-year-old King Salmon. The cavalry escort showcasing American and Saudi flags, billboard, posters and a red carpet signaled heightened expectations that a new deal and alliance would be struck. The total arms deal in question handily crosses a half-trillion dollars. But does the mammoth arms purchase and accompanying private sector investment make Saudi Arabia a trusted ally going forward?
What’s in the Deal?
The Saudis reportedly signed on to a weapons deal worth $110 billion in the immediate future and $350 billion over 10 years. It marks the largest agreement with the Middle Eastern nation and ranks among the biggest in history. To understand the magnitude of this sale, President Obama had sold more arms than any administration since World War II and totaled only $200 billion in eight years and a mere $60 billion to the Saudis.
Trump’s gargantuan deal would benefit American companies that include Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin among others. On the heels of the news, defense stock hit a record high and the Dow cracked 21K, again. Coinciding with the military equipment, America’s private sector, most notably GE, tallied another series of investments that could top $300 billion. At the end of the deal-making, Trump would reiterate his presidential mantra, “jobs, jobs, jobs.” But even with money flying across the table like a high stakes poker tournament, critics have solid grounds for questioning a U.S.-Saudi bond. The legal doors recently swung opened for Americans to sue Saudi Arabia for a suspected hand in the 9/11 attacks.
What Has Changed?
While lawsuits accuse the Saudis of state-funded terror, it has yet to be proven. But experts with a pragmatic understanding of Middle East politics and the region’s socio-economic forces highlight the fragility of these nations. For example, the so-called Arab Spring created more destabilization in the region than Democracy. Nearly-defeated radical factions such as the Taliban gave rise to major uprisings by more ferocious organization such as ISIS. Saudi leaders and other Arab countries have been forced to balance relationships between radicals and Western nations in the interest of national security. But two things have significantly changed, Iran and Trump.
Iran, like North Korea, is a rogue nation bent on developing nuclear weapons. It poses an immediate and definable threat to neighboring people and U.S. security interests. The Saudis are long-time enemies of Iran. The fear of nuclear superiority has Arab neighbors backed into a corner. Simply put: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. For the first time in many years, Arab nations see the hardline stances by a U.S. president toward extremism and Iran as an opportunity to build an alliance based on their own self interests.
An Arab-Style NATO?
President Trump floated the ambitious idea of helping to foster an “Arab NATO.” It would involve a group of Middle Eastern countries unified under one banner, including Israel, to combat the threats of terrorism and its other primary focus would be Iran. It was unclear whether the United States would be a full member or simply enjoy influence. American tax dollars wouldn’t be footing the bill, unlike NATO.
The region has all the pieces and ideology to form such a multi-national security alliance. Their national interests point toward removing ISIS, since the insurgents claimed a caliphate. They also have a common enemy, Iran, with nuclear aspirations. What makes this more viable than NATO is the fact that lives have been lost to those enemies. NATO was spawned out of two World Wars caused by German aggression, not Russia, and the loss of approximately 500,000 American soldiers. Not only is a U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance now feasible, it could include stronger ties with several countries. However, Arab nations have more reason to doubt the U.S. than vice versa. They’ve just witnessed a massive foreign policy shift from Obama to Trump and may fear that America’s commitment could changing in four years.