Fleeing scandals at home, Trump may be following Saudi Arabia into a whole new quagmire

*A version of this article was originally published in Quartz.

It is difficult to imagine a president more embattled than Donald J. Trump. Mired in controversy. Scandal after scandal breaking in rapid succession.

And so it goes that president Trump embarks on his first official tour overseas, not as a towering leader fresh of the greatest upset in US political history, but a man without an umbrella fleeing a deluge for a desert.

Donald Trump’s unconventional choice of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican should not have surprised anyone. During his first four months in office, the US president has managed to antagonize many of America’s closest allies, including Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia. A reset with Russia may have been a plausible place to start, but in the current, conspiracy-laden political environment, it is all but impossible.

And then there is the Gulf kingdom. Trump’s team—from Defense and State to Commerce and Treasury—have been meeting with Saudi officials for months. In March, the powerful Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had a face-to-face with Trump at the White House in what he labeled a “historical turning point” in the US-Saudi relationship. And there is a real belief that a stronger alliance with the Arab Gulf’s most powerful state gives the Trump administration the opportunity to advance several of its most vocal policy goals: defeating ISIS, containing Iran, and bringing investment and jobs back home to the United States.

“I think this is the most dramatic aspect of our new foreign policy in the Middle East, the pivoting or resetting, if you will, of the relations with the Gulf countries,” said Tim Lenderking, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, at a recent conference. “And so you do find that evidenced, in a very dramatic way, by the president’s decision to make Riyadh his first stop on an overseas visit.”

But as Trump—who has seemed way in over he is head with the tasks of governing—wades into the complexity of the Middle East, he may find that a trip to Saudi Arabia will not just get him farther away from the growing scandal unfolding in Washington, it may also move him further from the campaign promises that got him elected and closer to involvement in another deeply unpopular war.

Despite Trump campaigning on the platform of an America First approach to the Middle East, simultaneously fighting terrorism in the region while keeping the US out of full-scale warfare (it is unclear how this differs at all from Obama’s policy in the region), he has increasingly adopted the perspective of US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are pushing for a more aggressive US posture in the region, especially vis a vis Iran.

For two years, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of allies have been embroiled in a conflict in the neighboring state of Yemen, in what has been dubbed the Forgotten War, largely eclipsed by the much deadlier and regionally catastrophic conflict in Syria. And for two years the Saudis have tried to solicit more US help, something the Trump administration has quietly proceeded with since taking office in January.

Much like Syria, the fate of Yemen is important for regional and global security. It is now a frontline in a proxy war between Iran, the Gulf Arabs, and the US, as well as a bastion for Al-Qaeda operatives planning attacks on the West.

Yemen’s slow dissent into civil war began in 2011, as the Middle East roiled in popular revolution. After Yemen’s longstanding authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Salah was forced to step down in 2012, the internationally-mediated political transition faltered and eventually collapsed into bitter infighting. But it wasn’t until a rebel group known as the Houthis, in alliance with the disgruntled Salah and his supporters, made sweeping military gains in large parts of the country and took the capital Sana’a in 2014, that Saudi Arabia itself felt threatened.

The Houthis are part of a Shiite Muslim sect from Yemen’s mountainous northern region and have been engaged in conflict with the central government since the early 2000s. From the Saudi perspective they are a natural ally of Iran and are simply a pawn in Iran’s gamble for supremacy in the region. The Saudis have accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with weapons and political and financial support, and have conducted a prolonged bombing campaign in Yemen that has killed around 10,000 people and brought much of the country to the brink of famine.

For years the Obama administration tried to avoid a direct role in the conflict while also continuing to provide the Saudis with aircraft and material support.

“The Obama administration was a reluctant partner in the war,” says April Longley Alley, a Yemen specialist at the International Crisis Group. “But ultimately US support for the Saudi war in Yemen seemed to be part of the price the Obama administration was willing to pay for antagonizing Saudi Arabia over the Iranian nuclear deal.”

Obama tried to push the Gulf states to “share the neighborhood” with Iran, a position that the Arabs felt was out-of-touch with Iran’s nefarious intentions.

From the Saudi perspective, the Iranian regime is exporting its unique brand of Islamic revolution and fostering sectarian unrest among the pockets of Shiite Muslims that have lived for centuries as minorities in several countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

Through the use of proxies, Iran has made significant gains in recent years, in Iraq, Syria, and now Yemen. While Syria is less of a direct threat, the loss of Iraq to the immediate north and Yemen to the immediate south has Saudi feeling boxed in and existentially vulnerable. To put it in another context, an “Iranian” Yemen is to Saudi what a “Soviet” Cuba was to the US.

The regime’s paranoia is palpable—with the Iranian hand seen everywhere—and it has entangled Saudi and its partners in a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing the Houthis further into the hands of Iran when the connection had previously been tentative at best. The coalition’s quagmire in Yemen is costing them billions at a time when sustained, low oil prices means they can ill afford it.

With the election of Donald Trump, and the appointment of Gen. Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense and H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, the Saudi-led coalition has found sympathetic ears in the White House and men who share their concern of an expansionist Iran. Both generals were in Iraq and witnessed first-hand Iranian influence against US interests during the war.

In a 2014 speech, Mattis blasted Iranian aggression and said that the security of the Arab Gulf was an international responsibility and that any perceptions of US retrenchment bring on disaster. “So for our own interests we must remain engaged—economically, diplomatically, and [in] security—with the troubled Middle East,” Mattis stated.

It is not clear how far the US is willing to go in support of the Saudi coalition, but it will most likely continue to be limited to increased intelligence sharing and logistical support, in addition to supplying arms.

While Mattis has pushed for greater military support he has also called for a political solution to the conflict, acknowledging that this war will not be won by bombs alone.
Beyond the direct impact on the war and the political outcome in Yemen, an escalation of support by the Trump administration could have wide implications for the US and the region, sending a clear message to Iran, reaffirming a decades old security framework in the Arab Gulf, and tilting the balance in Trump’s own White House away from the populist-isolationist wing of Steve Bannon in favor of Mattis’ globally engaged Defense Department. Moreover, Trump certainly envisions a transactional relationship with the Gulf Arabs, extracting financial gains and possibly even making headway on the Arab-Israeli peace process.

When Donald Trump arrives in Riyadh on Saturday, he can expect a warm welcome and a lavish affair—one that may allow him to forget momentarily the crisis brewing back home. He will meet not only with the Saudi establishment, but other Arab and Muslim leaders from the region. They will look for reassurances and commitments from the US president on security. And they may also push for the United States to help them more in Yemen, especially in retaking the vitally important port city of Hodeida, where a siege with potentially immense civilian consequences looks to be in the offing.

In exchange, Trump will likely seek greater Saudi support in the fight against terrorists. He will ask the Saudis to make large investments in the US, with a rumored $40bn in infrastructure investment floated last week, and $100bn in new arms sales. The Saudis are already the largest importer of US weapons in the world, followed closely by the United Arab Emirates, a country of around 1mn citizens with a standing army in the tens of thousands. Trump may even ask the Arabs to normalize relations with Israel without a full peace settlement with the Palestinians, flipping the peace process on its head.

“I think the Saudis are very flattered and happy that Trump has decided to use them to make a point: that Saudi Arabia is the leading country in the region,” said Dr. Jean-Francois Seznec, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC and an expert on the Gulf. “I think the Saudis know that is going to cost them, money wise. They are ready for that.”

The Saudis will chalk up Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, his blame for 9/11, and his accusations that they are not paying their “fair share,” to good old-fashioned American politicking. And they will hope that despite the rumblings of impeachment back in the US, that this president’s term is not going to end anytime soon.

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