Momentum building for stronger US-Saudi ties

Princess Reema faces a daunting task as Saudi envoy to the United States but she can count on many factors to work in her favour.

Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan has presented her credentials to US President Donald Trump as Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador to the United States.

Almost a week before that meeting July 8, Trump praised Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz on the sidelines of the G20 summit, saying the crown prince was doing a “spectacular job.” Trump was referring to Riyadh’s efforts to loosen social restrictions and diversify the Saudi economy from its dependence on oil.

Princess Reema faces a daunting task as Saudi envoy to the United States but she can count on many factors to work in her favour. Among them are the princess’s extensive knowledge of US politics and culture, her reputation as an advocate for women’s rights and Trump’s resolve to maintain the United States’ strategic, historic alliance with the Saudis.

It is important to note that the princess, the daughter of influential Saudi envoy and former Ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has been groomed for this mission from an early age. She is the granddaughter of King Salman’s brother, giving her significant influence within the ruling family.

Princess Reema will no doubt be forced to deal with many difficult issues, notably tensions with Iran, the aftermath of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.

To address these issues, she could actively engage with members of the US Congress and Washington’s foreign policy elite but that approach will only be effective if Riyadh works to reassure US policymakers that the Saudis are open to addressing their concerns.

This will require the skilled diplomacy that Princess Reema has developed. A graduate of George Washington University in Washington, she previously played a key role in strengthening Saudi-US relations and shining a light on the kingdom’s forward vision.

Last January, she attended the World Economic Forum where she spoke about Saudi Arabia’s desire to “create a new narrative” and the challenges that come with that.

A month later, she spoke at the Atlantic Council on socio-economic transformation in the kingdom as part of its Vision 2030 programme, specifically focusing on social effects, community engagement and improving quality of life.

With Princess Reema representing Riyadh, a new momentum for stronger US-Saudi ties is expected to build beyond the challenging moments that the relationship endured especially after the Khashoggi episode.

For more than a century, US-Saudi relations have gone through ups and downs but remained generally positive.

The two countries’ relationship began just one year after the founding of Saudi Arabia, in 1933, when King Ibn Saud granted an oil exploration concession to Standard Oil of California, a precursor to the Arabian American Oil Company — Aramco. In 1938, those ties grew stronger when oil was discovered in the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia and US energy interests in the kingdom were further solidified.

While the United States is now energy-independent, many of its Asian allies, notably South Korea and Japan, rely heavily on oil imports. This makes Saudi Arabia’s role in the energy market, which it has the ability to insulate from disruption, key to US interests. The United States is also able to use its relationship with Saudi Arabia to advance strategic foreign policy interests in the region.

However, it has not always been easy for the two countries to cooperate on foreign policy matters. In the 1970s, for example, Arab members of OPEC, including Saudi Arabia, imposed an oil embargo on countries, including the United States, that supported Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Even in that difficult time, however, the crisis did little to disrupt security ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The embargo was lifted in March 1974 and Washington and Riyadh subsequently signed an agreement to increase military and economic cooperation. In 1975, the United States and Saudi Arabia concluded military sales agreements worth $2 billion.

A low point for the Saudi-US partnership came after the 9/11 attacks. The fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens and that the plan’s mastermind Osama bin Laden was of Saudi origin (bin Laden’s Saudi citizenship was stripped in 1994) slanted US public opinion decidedly against the kingdom. The attacks also refocused attention on the role of Salafist ideology in Saudi Arabia’s political system.

Despite these shifts, the administration of US President George W. Bush knew that cooperation with Saudi Arabia was needed more than ever in fighting the war on terror and maintained close ties with Riyadh.

How the United States and Saudi Arabia have bounced back from those challenging periods shows how resilient their relationship is — able to stand the test of time and changing political waters. Much of this is due to Saudi Arabia’s status as a powerful global actor, both politically and economically.

With one of the 20 largest economies in the world, Saudi Arabia is a major global investor, pumping tens of billions of dollars into projects around the world, as well as tens of billions of dollars in private wealth. The Office of the US Trade Representative stated that US goods and services trade with Saudi Arabia totalled an estimated $48.1 billion in 2018. Exports were $22.4 billion and imports were $25.7 billion.

The kingdom’s geopolitical role is equally significant, as it retains custodianship of the Muslim world’s most revered holy sites and maintains solid relations with most Arab countries. For the United States, cooperating with Saudi Arabia can serve its interests in the Middle East and help strengthen ties with other Arab countries.

This, of course, means that the United States should preserve its partnership with Riyadh and support the kingdom’s reform efforts, which are widely popular at home.

When the two countries do inevitably face challenges, they should engage in dialogue to help forge common ground. After all, their partnership is more critical than ever to counter security threats common to both countries. With Princess Reema beginning her mission, Saudi Arabia and the United States should focus on how, together, they can help preserve their interests and deal with mutual challenges.

Iman Zayat is the Managing Editor of The Arab Weekly.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.