New refrain in Washington: Is this the Saudi Arabia we wanted?

US policymakers had long sought a more assertive Saudi Arabia. But there's a growing concern outside the White House about the ambitious and untested Saudi crown prince, who is increasingly confronting Iran.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seen in May 2017.

From the outset of his presidency, Donald Trump has signaled his intention to refashion Middle East policy in a big way – and to return Saudi Arabia, sidelined in President Obama’s regional vision, to a preeminent spot in US policy.

Mr. Trump broke decades of presidential precedent by making Saudi Arabia the first foreign destination of his presidency. He has seemed to issue, through speeches and tweets, an American carte blanche to Saudi actions: both in the region – as the Saudis have ramped up efforts to counter Iran’s rise – and domestically.

When Saudi Arabia’s young king-in-waiting, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recently launched a lightning anticorruption and power-consolidation operation – detaining so many princes and high officials that he had to add a Marriott Courtyard to the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton he’d commandeered as a detention facility – Trump quickly tweeted that King Salman and the prince “know exactly what they are doing.”

Trump had already assigned his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to work closely with the equally young and untried crown prince – known widely in Middle East circles as “MBS” – to come up with what the dealmaker-in-chief has promised will be the “ultimate deal.” Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to be just one part of a grand Middle East peace plan featuring a path to full relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Saudi Arabia chief among them.

Yet now as the Saudi kingdom risks getting bogged down by its domestic upheaval, and especially as Saudi actions toward Lebanon threaten to add another foreign policy misfortune to a list topped by a disastrous war in Yemen and a botched row with neighboring Gulf kingdom Qatar, some US officials and longtime regional experts are questioning the wisdom of Trump’s Saudi carte blanche.

The question reverberating around the State Department and among Middle East experts, many with long experience with the Saudis, is: Where might this lead?

Among the chief worries is this: that the president’s full and unquestioning embrace of the Saudis and their king-in-waiting could lead to the US being dragged into a conflict with Iran. Moreover, some warn that a Saudi perception of carte blanche – and the absence of any restraint or cautionary advice from the US – could actually harm a longtime US ally by paving its path to deeper blunders.

“Trump’s unquestioning support and evident encouragement have unleashed the Saudis to do things we’ve long hoped for, namely to assert themselves in the region and to take on more of their own security,” says Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives and Middle East Program director at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“But now that the president has emboldened the prince to launch into these actions, what you’re hearing increasingly is remorse about what we’ve wished for,” he adds. “No one knows where all this is heading, but it’s pretty clear that not all the potential outcomes are in our interest.”


Evan Vucci/AP
President Trump talks with Saudi King Salman as they pose for photos with leaders at the Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, May 21 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. At right is Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Tillerson's stance

Clearly the White House, with the president in the lead, is delighted with the Saudis’ new assertiveness, particularly when it comes to efforts at countering Iran. But that unvarnished enthusiasm does not extend to either the State Department or the Pentagon, where support for Saudi actions is tinged with concerns about where what some see as adventurism could lead – and what any resulting instability could cost the US.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had already diverged from his boss in June in response to the Saudis’ row with Qatar, ostensibly over lax treatment of jihadi extremism: Trump cheered on the Saudis, Mr. Tillerson plunged into the dispute to find a diplomatic solution.

Then this month – only days after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri appeared suddenly in Riyadh and went on Saudi television to announce his resignation, reading a statement that accused Iran of meddling in Arab politics – Tillerson included Saudi Arabia in a stark warning to regional actors not to undertake actions that could threaten the stability of Lebanon.

“The United States cautions against any party … using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country,” Tillerson said in a Nov. 10 statement. State Department officials later confirmed that the secretary indeed included Saudi Arabia in his warning.

Mr. Hariri, who remains in Riyadh but plans to travel to Paris for discussions with French officials, has insisted that he is not in the Saudi capital under duress. But regional analysts have posited that the Saudis indeed engineered the Lebanese leader’s resignation over unhappiness with his 11-month tenure.

Over that time, the Iran-backed Hezbollah has used its place in a fragile coalition government to expand its power within Lebanon and in conflicts in neighboring Syria and in Yemen – both of which are prime concerns of the Saudis.

The upheaval in Lebanon has raised fears of a new war that could draw in Israel and make a shambles of Trump’s pursuit of a broad regional peace deal. More broadly, some US officials worry that Saudi missteps could draw the US into yet another Middle East conflict.

“It does seem that the US, in the sense of the State Department and the Pentagon as opposed to the White House, has a growing fear that it will be left to pick up the pieces of some of these Saudi initiatives and to try to make the best of bad situations,” says Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and energy policy program at the Washington Institute for near East policy.

'This is the new days'

After the wave of detentions inside Saudi Arabia, and then the Hariri drama, Mr. Henderson says he has “got the sense that the US, or at least certain sectors of the government, thinks that Saudi Arabia in general and MBS in particular are trying to keep too many balls in the air at the same time.”

What has emerged since the “curious case of Qatar,” Henderson adds, is a pattern in which the Trump White House “has supported MBS to the evident frustration of [Defense Secretary James] Mattis and Tillerson.”

Regional actors have taken note of what looks to be Tillerson’s more nuanced and cautious approach to the Saudis and their actions, analysts say, but they generally add that there’s a broad understanding that it’s the president and Mr. Kushner who count.

“Sure, the secretary of State has made a point to communicate his differences with some of what the Saudis are doing, but the real question is, so what?” says Mr. Miller, who has served as a Middle East policy adviser in both Republican and Democratic administrations. “Does it really matter what Rex Tillerson says or does while the president and his son-in-law continue to demonstrate that they are all in with the king and MBS, both in terms of their anti-Iranian initiatives and their role in a grand peace plan?” he says.

“Maybe in the old days of US foreign policy, what the secretary of State said and did mattered,” he adds, “but this is the new days.”

Hezbollah a concern

That said, Miller underscores the reality that Saudi Arabia faces complex economic and political challenges at home, even as it confronts an increasingly worrisome security environment outside its borders.

Among those legitimate security concerns, he adds, none surpasses the challenge of Iran’s expanding regional influence, and in particular its evident success at fashioning Hezbollah into a formidable regional proxy.

Pointing to a rocket attack this month on Riyadh’s airport that the Saudis claim was carried out by Iran- and Hezbollah-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, Miller says the establishment of a ballistic missile capability on Saudi Arabia’s border would be an ominous destabilizing factor in the region.

“It appears the Iranians are trying to turn Yemen’s Houthis into the equivalent of what Hezbollah represents on Israel’s border,” Miller says. “Of course the Saudis want to figure out some way to prevent that from happening.”

What worries analysts and some US officials alike is that the Saudis appear to lack an effective strategy for confronting Iran, and that the disastrous Saudi-led war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen don’t engender much confidence in other initiatives the king and crown prince are undertaking.

Except, it appears, in the White House.

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