President Donald J. Trump is known for breaking norms of domestic and foreign policy in his first year in office. In terms of US-Saudi relations, however, his policy has been relatively standard. Although he chose Saudi Arabia as his first international destination as president—breaking the pattern of a new president visiting either Canada or Mexico first—little else in the existing US-Saudi relationship has changed. During that May 2017 trip, Trump attended three summits, oversaw the signing of several lucrative military and economic deals, adopted counter-terrorism measures and articulated a stronger stance against Iran. None of these were new to the Saudi-US relationship.
It was only after Trump left the region that massive events unfolded inside Saudi Arabia. Most notable in terms of foreign policy were the rapprochement with Iraq and the Qatar boycott by four Arab countries. Domestically, King Salman replaced Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif with his own son, Mohammed bin Salman, who enacted numerous changes such as lifting the bans on cinemas and women driving. Moreover, there were two major waves of arrests. The first targeted Islamists, liberal-Islamists and reformers, while the other targeted numerous princes, businessmen and bureaucrats on corruption charges. Finally, several economic megaprojects were announced. How do we make sense of these unusual events in Saudi Arabia, and did Trumpism play a role in their occurrence?
Most US media commentators on Saudi Arabia trace the causes of these events by emphasizing the personalities of President Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Yet such explanations are flawed in that they ignore the broader regional context and challenges these actors face. In fact, Trump’s election played at best a very minor role in shaping events inside of Saudi Arabia. Deeper regional and domestic structural changes were much more influential—notably the Qatar crisis and the ascendance of Mohammed bin Salman to power.
After the end of the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the United States contained the three main regional powers: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. President Bill Clinton’s Dual Containment policy constrained Iran and Iraq, whereas Saudi influence in the Gulf was limited by a significant US military presence in each of the smaller Gulf emirates. This new structure gave these Gulf states freedom to adopt foreign policies relatively independent of influence by Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States ceased to be a guarantor of the regional status quo; indeed, the United States became a regional disrupting force.
By 2007, Saudi Arabia’s regional influence had been weakened by these new US policies, while Iran became the main regional beneficiary, as evident in Iraq and Lebanon. The US invasion of Iraq led to the establishment of a pro-Iranian regime, whereas the successful US-backed international efforts to expel Syrian forces from Lebanon led to the growing influence of Hizballah. This structural shift in regional powers, and its influence on Saudi Arabia, was compounded by the fact that following its economic crisis and US military failure in Iraq, the United States moved to disengage from much of the region. Saudi Arabia began to take a more assertive, interventionist position to pursue its interests and secure its hegemony in the region. But it was not alone in doing so. Between 2008 and 2011, three axes emerged in the region: the Saudi axis, which included Egypt and Jordan; the Qatari axis, which included Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood parties across the Arab World; and the Iranian axis, which included Syria, Iraq and Hizballah.
For each of these axes, the Arab uprisings were akin to an earthquake. From 2011 to 2013, the Qatari axis expanded to include Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. The Syrian revolution caused a blow to the Iranian axis, but the main loser immediately following the uprisings was the Saudi axis, which lost its allies in Egypt and Yemen. Beginning in 2013, however, Saudi Arabia allied with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to regain influence over Egypt and partial influence in Libya and Tunisia. The kingdom designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and in March 2015 launched a war against the Houthis in Yemen, who had moved against the pro-Saudi government there. As a consequence of these Saudi moves, the Qatari axis was dramatically weakened. The Qatar crisis emerged as a result of this context of US disengagement from the region while rivalries between the regional axes escalated. These shifting structures of power in the region meant that these conflicts were almost inevitable, regardless of who is living in the White House.
Mohammed bin Salman’s ascendance to power was not merely a result of his own agency, but also was predicated on the regional context of shifting structural arrangements. In the mid-2000s, the Saudi king and his two potential successors were in their 70s and 80s. This predicament of the Saudi state only having aged statesmen was a by-product of the brother-to-brother succession order established by King Faisal. This policy of succession was successful to the degree that even Faisal’s assassination did not cause a disruption in Saudi rule. As the brothers aged, however, the specter of death loomed and a succession crisis emerged in the 2000s.
To solve that crisis, King Abdullah created two mechanisms. In 2007, he established the Allegiance Authority as a tool to designate the new crown princes, with clear rules that permitted each branch of the royal family to have an equal say in the matter. But by 2014, two of King Abdullah’s crown princes—Sultan and Naif—had died, and Salman became the new crown prince. That year, King Abdullah created a new royal position of deputy crown prince, which was designated to Mugrin, the youngest brother of King Abdullah. In doing so, King Abdullah attempted to ensure that in the event of his death the Allegiance Authority would choose the first deputy crown prince from the new generation. Upon Abdullah’s death in 2015, however, the newly crowned King Salman used the tools that Abdullah had created to solve the succession problem in a less consultative way: he appointed his son as crown prince, and amended the Basic Law to state that, after his death, the king and crown prince should not be from the same royal branch. In doing so, he assured the other branches of the royal family that his son is not allowed to choose his successor from Salman’s royal branch.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is young and relatively new to the Saudi leadership. He has sought to secure his position by adopting seemingly populist policies against the established elites—a complex network of constituencies that combines old princes, powerful bureaucrats and wealthy businessmen. These new policies appeal to a new generation—drawn from the 70 percent of the population that is under the age of 35—who are active in business and government. Islamists are perceived as a potential threat. This is because they are the only powerful and relatively organized social force in the kingdom, and because they are considered allies to either certain royal rivals, or to the Qatari regime. To contain their influence, the newly emerged Saudi nationalist, populist discourse adopted an anti-Islamist agenda. A crackdown on Islamists, liberal-Islamists and reformers came at the same time as the decisions regarding Saudi women and entertainment were issued.
Trump’s election contributed little to these events in Saudi Arabia. The larger explanation has to do with the structural conditions of a changed US role in the region after the US invasion of Iraq, as well as the Saudi succession problem and Mohammed bin Salman’s power consolidation. Of course, the agency of individuals such as the crown prince do play a significant role in historical processes. But the preoccupation with certain personalities can lead to exceptionalist explanations to the neglect of precursor events and other structural factors at work. Orientalist explanations also render events beyond comparative analysis, when in fact these recent events in Saudi Arabia are readily comprehensible as a set of shifting structural relations of power alliances domestically, regionally and internationally.