President Trump’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia is a clear sign that the White House is allying itself with Riyadh, as regional power plays between the kingdom and Iran continue to polarize the Middle East.
Making Saudi Arabia his first overseas visit as president, Mr. Trump is breaking with recent White House tradition of the inaugural trip being in the Americas or to one of Washington’s European allies. Critics claim the visit is designed to offset anti-Muslim rhetoric that played so heavily into Mr. Trump’s election campaign and fueled two hamstrung efforts to institute a travel ban from several majority-Muslim countries.
Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., praised the decision during a speech last week, telling a counterterrorism symposium at the Middle East Policy Council in Washington that it reinforces the solid diplomatic and national security ties between Washington and Riyadh going back decades.
The Trump White House’s decision is also seen as a rebuke of the Obama administration’s efforts to warm up to Iran and strike a nuclear pact that Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he will dismantle, and which Riyadh also opposed as ineffectual.
Critics of the deal say it has left Washington and the international community unable to enforce United Nations-passed efforts to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
While the Middle East street may view Mr. Trump’s visit to the kingdom as choosing sides in the regional tug of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, National Security Adviser H.M. McMaster characterized the trip as a religious gesture by the U.S.
“What President Trump is seeking is to unite people of all faiths around a common vision of peace, progress and prosperity. He will bring a message of tolerance and of hope to billions, including to millions of Americans who profess these faiths,” Mr. McMaster said during a briefing at the White House.
After departing Riyadh, Mr. Trump will make stops in Israel and Vatican City before attending a NATO leaders meeting in Brussels and a Group of Seven summit in Sicily.
“No president has ever visited the homelands and the holy sites of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths all on one trip,” Mr. McMaster said Friday.
With the Saudi visit, the White House is drawing a diplomatic line in the sand in that race between Tehran and Riyadh for control of the Middle East. The Iran nuclear deal is only one of several thorny issues in the Iranian-Saudi relationship with which Mr. Trump will have to contend.
Both countries have sought to assert their dominance in the region via the fight against the Islamic State group, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
Saudi warplanes have carried out more airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria than any other country in the coalition except the U.S., Saudi Lt. Col. Khalid Alzahranii, a senior member of the counterterrorism directorate in the Interior Ministry, said during the same symposium last week.
Alternatively, Iranian military advisers from the country’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps have been training and fighting for the past two years alongside Shiite paramilitaries, known as Popular Mobilization Units, against the Islamic State in northern Iraq.
The Shiite-led militias, which have been accused of extrajudicial killings in previous offensives against the Islamic State in Fallujah and Anbar province, are close to capturing the Iraqi town of Tal Afar, which lies west of the terrorist group’s self-proclaimed Iraqi capital of Mosul.
While much of the White House’s rhetoric on the Middle East has centered on the Iran nuclear deal and the fight against the Islamic State, the president’s visit could open the door to U.S. involvement in the Saudi-backed war against Houthi separatists in Yemen.
The Houthi rebels, a Sunni separatist sect in the country backed by Iran, ousted President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi from power in 2015. Since then, a Saudi-led Arab military coalition and government forces loyal to current Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh are in a pitched fight against Houthi forces for control of the country.
The war in Yemen poses serious threats to the region, said Mr. Al-Mouallimi, the ambassador. “We cannot have permanent peace in Saudi Arabia without [peace in] Yemen,” he added.
Washington has remained on the sidelines in the proxy war in Yemen, focusing its efforts on dismantling the powerful al Qaeda cell in the country, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Riyadh’s efforts to defeat the Houthis via devastating air power — which has reportedly included the use of cluster bombs banned under the international rules of war — prompted the Obama administration to keep the conflict at arm’s length.
But Mr. Trump’s arrival in Riyadh is a signal that this could change quickly, said Ford Fraker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2007 to 2009.
The former top emissary said an escalation of U.S. support for the Saudi offensive in Yemen is “something to watch for” in the aftermath of Mr. Trump’s visit.
Mr. Fraker declined to comment as to what specific means the Pentagon could bring to the fight in Yemen, but he did note that several U.S. arms sales to Riyadh pending in Congress could be a first step in that process.
In March, senior U.S. military leaders were already weighing options on how to accelerate overt support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, Foreign Policy reported at the time. Options included providing weapons and ammunition to Saudi forces, increasing intelligence and surveillance operations against Houthi targets, and providing that intelligence to Riyadh, according to the report.
On Oct. 11, U.S. forces launched multiple strikes against targets inside Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen in retaliation for two missile attacks against U.S. warships operating off of the Yemeni coastline.
The U.S. strikes took place hours after the USS Mason, an American guided missile destroyer deployed to the Red Sea, came under fire from a cruise missile launched from Houthi-controlled territory near Al Hudaydah, roughly 180 miles southwest of Yemeni capital of Sana. It was the second such attack in as many weeks against the Arleigh-Burke-class warship.
Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran boiled over in January with the Saudi execution of prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, along with 47 others, on charges of terrorism.
The execution sparked a wave of protests and widespread outcry across the region. Violent protests in Iran peaked when the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was ransacked and set on fire that month.