In many ways, the future of American foreign relations is about to take some unexpected turns when Donald Trump is sworn into office in January. Despite some very unorthodox statements from the campaign trail, The Donald has already begun walking back many of his more radical promises. As could be expected, the constraints of the Washington establishment and the reality of global politics means that the president-elect may find it very difficult to make drastic changes to the overall global order. Still, there are many ways the incoming president can attempt to alter the balance of power, particularly in the Middle East. In our previous post, we provided some initial reactions and speculation on the likely paths of America and the Middle East. This week, we take an in-depth look at the future of one of the most influential countries in the region: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Oil & Energy
Perhaps the only thing many people know about Saudi Arabia is that it is covered in sand and filled with oil. Saudi Arabia still holds some of the most abundant petroleum reserves in the world and has long played a key role in the global oil economy. Lately, the Kingdom has been intentionally working to keep prices low in order to shut down competing (and more expensive) technologies such as fracking. Now that Trump is headed for the White House, the United States seems poised to increase its petroleum consumption at the expense of renewable resources. But this doesn't necessarily translate into more profits for Saudi Arabia. America only imports about a tenth of its oil from Saudi Arabia (and this number is continuing to fall).
If anything, Trump's proposals to back the production and expansion of petroleum resources may hurt Saudi Arabia. This is because the United States had been increasing its market share in petroleum for the past several years (and recently discovered yet another massive oil field in Texas). Having finally realized that an economy based exclusively on one export is really risky, Saudi Arabia recently began the long overdue process of diversifying its economy. Now, the Kingdom is actively investing in using its petroleum resources to create plastics, polymers, and other petroleum based consumer goods. It is also working to develop industries such as mining and even tourism. Trump's proposed policies will likely hasten these diversification efforts.
National Security & Terrorism
The U.S.-Saudi security relationship has always been a little awkward. For decades, the self-proclaimed "Custodian of the Holy Places of Islam" has swapped intelligence, airspace rights, and military cooperation in exchange for weapons and protection from one of the most Christian nations in the world. This relationship is constantly strained by the dual concerns of Saudi support for radical movements and its blatant human rights abuses. Donald Trump and his supporters are often some of the harshest critics of the Kingdom because of its ties to radical Islam. But the harsh reality is that the continuation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is fundamental to the strategies of both nations, so the core of this agreement is unlikely to change.
But this doesn't mean that security relations will suddenly turn rosy again. Though Trump's message on American interventionism is often mixed, it seems more likely than not that The Donald will look to disengage from regional conflicts (with the obvious exception of the fight against ISIS). This means that new weapons sales to Saudi Arabia may end up being shelved and that America's minimal support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen may be further reduced. Trump rarely has kind words to say about Saudi Arabia, but the Kingdom can take solace in the fact that his rhetoric towards its long-time rival Iran is even worse. Saudi Arabia made no secret of its disapproval of the Iranian nuclear deal (which greatly increases Iran's ability to project power in the region), so Trump's proposals to tear up the deal would leave Saudi Arabia in a better position to force its hand in the region. But overall, a decreasing American security commitment to Saudi Arabia will probably push the Kingdom to either fend for itself or attempt to find new security partners in Russia or China.
With regards to joint efforts to fight global terrorism, the result may be much the same. Trump has made it clear that he points the finger of blame at Islam itself for America's current issues with global terrorism, and this is in some ways a veiled criticism of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has exported its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam (Wahhabism) for decades, and continues to support radical groups throughout the region. Though the United States has long condemned Saudi Arabia for this practice, Donald Trump may take this even further (possibly even by withholding security cooperation). Unfortunately, Saudi's exportation of radical ideologies seems fundamental to its security policy, so here again we may see Saudi Arabia turn to other security providers who are less picky about the Kingdom's choice of allies.
In all, the strained relations of Saudi Arabia and the United States probably won't improve much in the next four years. Trump may be able to ignore the Kingdom's blatant human rights abuses (given his support for people like Turkey's Erdogan), but Saudi Arabia's support for radical organizations can't be ignored by someone so fixated on fighting "radical Islamic terrorism." Saudi Arabia is already feeling isolated in the region, and this will probably continue to increase under a Trump administration. Regarding oil, this means decreasing its dependence on the global oil market by diversifying its economy. In security terms, it means a higher emphasis on going it alone. And a Saudi Arabia that feels increasingly threatened by Iran and abandoned by the United States doesn't bode well for the prospects of stability in the Middle East.