Washington, DC – Someone, perhaps, is very rich today because he or she placed a $2 bet on November 9 that President Donald Trump’s first overseas trip would be to Saudi Arabia. Less than 18 months ago, Candidate Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Now, President Trump is rushing to the cradle of Islam. The strange secret is that, despite his campaign rhetoric, he will be welcomed warmly. The important thing is that he not be too comfortable.
President Trump will find the Gulf refreshingly hospitable. His hosts will demonstrate their skill with flattery. The local press will be adulatory and accepting. The settings will be golden and sumptuous. Officials will solemnly promise to work hard on counter-radicalization, they will announce some weapons deals and investment agreements, and the president will be tempted to pocket some easy victories and move on. He should resist the temptation. Rather than bask in adulation, the president must commit to the hard work of leadership in the region.
On a strategic level, Gulf leaders think President Trump has his priorities very much in order: He is hostile to Iran, he is perhaps even more hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, and he thinks that issues of democratization and governance are purely domestic and shouldn’t concern the United States. Compared to the Obama administration, which the Gulf’s ruling families saw as taking the opposite approach on each of those issues, President Trump is a huge relief.
The Gulf’s leaders want to feel American love. They were stung by what they saw as President Barack Obama’s aloof and condescending attitude toward them. The rise of unconventional oil and gas in the United States convinced many in the Middle East and around the world that the United States could afford to pull back from the region’s conflicts, and many in the Gulf felt like they were being abandoned to face Iranian aggression alone. President Obama accentuated that fear, suggesting in his well-known Atlantic interview in April 2016 that unqualified US support for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states against Iran would merely cause the GCC states to act recklessly and force the United States to intervene on their behalf. Obama wouldn’t go down that road.
President Trump is unlikely to show any of President Obama’s thunderous indifference. He is likely, even, to strike up friendships with many of the leaders—fellow billionaires with extensive family businesses and an eye on grooming the next generation. But he must understand that what the Gulf needs isn’t US love, it’s US leadership. That leadership must come on several levels.
First, the United States needs to play a more active role resolving the conflicts in the area. It is a truism of diplomacy that conflicts are not always ripe for resolution, but there needs to be a stronger US strategy to move these conflicts toward resolution. In Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, US partners do not seem to have lashed together their military and diplomatic strategies. The United States itself is leading by poor example, constantly talking up the need to boost the Pentagon’s capabilities while contemplating steep cuts in the State Department’s staffing and resources. Battlefields rarely deliver lasting victories, and the link between military action and diplomacy is not automatic—it needs to be developed. A skillful administration would be constantly examining conditions for diplomatic opportunities, calibrating its military actions, and persuading allies to do more of the same. Evidence suggests that, so far, that’s not being done nearly enough.
Second, the United States needs governments to be serious about cracking down on facilitators of terrorism, and not be swayed by bromides on counter-radicalization. There are at least three reasons for this. In part, religious ideology probably plays a smaller role promoting terrorism than has frequently been described. Many terrorists come from secular (and often criminal) backgrounds, and they are not seeking a religious consensus for validation. Often, a thin, religiously flavored justification is enough. In part, too, a crackdown on extremist voices can be lifted just as quickly as it is imposed. And an effective crackdown assumes agreement on what exactly constitutes “extremism.” Such an agreement has been elusive in the Middle East itself, as well as between US and Arab experts. And if that’s not enough, Egyptians, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Lebanese (among others) can tell long stories about Gulf agreements for support that were signed with fanfare but never fulfilled. What matters more than words on counterterrorism is sustained law enforcement and intelligence cooperation. Emirati support on smuggling and money laundering in Dubai is an important successful example of this. US leadership here means insisting on even tighter bilateral and multilateral ties and better execution of the law enforcement mission.
Third, the United States needs to find creative ways to foster better governance among partners looking at a future in which oil wealth will diminish. This applies to wealthy oil-exporting countries as well as the poorer labor-exporting countries: A diminishing thirst for oil will affect all of them. The federal government itself is not always the best adviser for countries seeking to shrink the economic role of government or boost governmental efficiency. But a variety of US state and local governments have relevant experience, and there is valuable experience in academia, the private sector, and among the international financial institutions that have worked on related problems for decades. The US government could play a useful role encouraging these groups to work together on Gulf-related issues more than they do, and finding ways to both persuade and support regional partners to do hard but necessary things domestically should be a pillar of US diplomacy in the region.
All of these issues are hard, and they are complicated. They require sustained, detailed work from government experts, and they require sustained follow-up. It is not the sort of activity on which the Trump administration has put a premium up to now. Many of the Gulf governments lack strong institutions. They are better at making announcements than following through. The president should work to raise these partners to the American level. He shouldn’t drop to theirs.