Trump’s Calls With Gulf Allies Offer Insight on Mideast Policy

  • Leaders said to agree to enhance anti-terrorism efforts
  • Call comes amid growing criticism of Trump’s visa ban

Two days after moving to block the entry of citizens of seven majority Muslim countries, President Donald Trump’s talks with two Gulf Arab leaders contained no public mention of the ban. The focus, instead, was on anti-terrorism efforts and confronting a mutual foe: Iran.

Trump spoke by phone on Sunday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, whose country is home to Islam’s holiest shrines, as well as Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed. The call with the Saudi monarch lasted more than an hour, according to a senior Saudi person who spoke on condition of anonymity. In addition to fighting terrorism, they agreed to tackle Iran’s “destabilizing regional activities,” the White House said.

Trump speaks to King Salman on Jan. 29.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The remarks shed more light on Trump’s Middle East policy by signaling he wants to improve ties with the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab monarchies that felt shunned by the U.S. under the Obama administration, which focused on clinching a nuclear deal with Iran. The new U.S. president, however, stopped short of repeating his earlier vows to repeal the accord, saying he agreed with the Saudi king on “the importance of rigorously enforcing” it, according to the Trump administration.

“If you are the incoming U.S. president, you will have a huge advantage with the Saudis and the Gulf states -- just by not being Obama,” Crispin Hawes, London-based managing director at Teneo Intelligence, said in a phone interview. “The impression Trump gives is that he sees political relationships in a bilateral framework. The Saudi-U.S. relationship on every observable level functions very well. At a starting point if you are King Salman, this is all good.”

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose capital is Abu Dhabi, are engaged in proxy confrontations with Shiite-ruled Iran in some of the Middle East’s bloodiest conflicts. The Islamic Republic was one of the seven countries included in the 90-day immigration ban on Friday, the others being Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya.

Safe Zones

Trump asked the two leaders to help secure safe zones in conflict areas in the region to support the displaced. King Salman also agreed to back “other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts,” the White House said. The two leaders “agreed on the importance of strengthening joint efforts to fight the spread of radical Islamic terrorism and also on the importance of working jointly to address challenges to regional peace and security, including the conflicts in Syria and Yemen,” it said.

Saudi Arabia is one of the U.S.’s oldest allies in the Middle East. Saudis and other Gulf Arabs criticized former President Barack Obama for not offering enough support in the showdown with Iran.

Ties were also strained last year after the U.S. Congress passed a law that allows victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue the kingdom. Fifteen Saudi nationals took part in the attacks on New York and Washington.

Saudi officials, however, have welcomed Trump’s election and praised his energy policies as well as his choice of Rex Tillerson, the former chairman of Exxon Mobil Corp., as secretary of state. The kingdom is considering New York as a possible venue for the share sale of its oil giant Aramco, in what could be the world’s biggest initial public offering.

“The Saudis welcomed his appointment,” Teneo’s Hawes said. “Tillerson is someone who has tremendous diplomatic experience in the region,” he said. “He is a known quantity. Right now, I think this is going as well as Saudi policymakers could have hoped.”

Bin Laden

Trump and the Saudi king discussed ways to boost economic ties, which the senior Saudi person said would increase trade and create jobs. The call also tackled how the late al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, aimed to destroy the kingdom’s ties with the U.S. by recruiting Saudis to launch the 9-11 attacks, the person said.

Trump has ordered a review of U.S. strategy to combat Islamic State fighters operating in Iraq and Syria. In a memo Saturday, Trump ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan within 30 days to eliminate the terror group.

It’s unclear how or whether the strategy would deviate from the Obama administration’s efforts, which has involved deploying U.S. special forces, supplying and equipping local armies, and building a coalition air campaign. Over the weekend, a U.S. serviceman was killed in a raid against al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, the first such loss since Trump took office.

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