Donald Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia this weekend was more sober in tone than has come to be expected of the new president. But in content, it was by no means tame. In fact, it marked a significant shift in US positioning – one which risks further inflaming regional tensions and fuelling rather than quelling the conditions driving extremism.
Trump’s speech essentially committed the US to a return to a no-questions-asked relationship with the Gulf States, one for which Washington will be richly rewarded with lavish defence contracts. The speech laid out a vision that adopted the Gulf line on regional security in its entirety. It largely decontextualized the rise of extremism from any political and economic drivers, particularly as they might relate to the Gulf, and lay blame on Iran for the entirety of regional problems.
For many this shift, especially in terms of confronting Tehran, is a welcome response to the Obama administration’s perceived timidity. Moreover, Trump’s words are already being matched by action: in both Yemen and Syria the US has recently stepped up its military role.
But Trump’s positioning comes with significant risks.
Carte blanche backing for authoritarian rule is more likely than not to enable the forces feeding instability and extremism.
The president’s central message to the Gulf States and their assembled allies was one of partnership in the anti-ISIS fight, intimating that the US will not push them on internal governance issues. But in so doing Trump ignores the role that authoritarian crackdowns, political exclusion and economic disenfranchisement can play in driving the conditions feeding extremism. Carte blanche backing for authoritarian rule is more likely than not to enable the forces feeding instability and extremism. On this front regional allies need to be pushed as much as adversaries (while in Riyadh Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned Iran for human rights violations).
Of even greater significance was the speech’s tone towards Iran. To be sure, Tehran drives much of the upheaval devastating the region, and is enabling the Assad regime’s brutal repression of its own people in Syria. But it is certainly not alone in this respect, with the humanitarian disaster and expanding presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen as much a result of Gulf policies as those of the Iranian-backed Houthis. In Libya, where Iran is not present, Gulf actors have played a role backing opposing sides of a civil war in which a local ISIS affiliate emerged.
More immediately, a strategy based purely on confrontation, with no avenue for a diplomatic approach that recognises some space for Iran’s interests, will only push Tehran to double down on its position. This will likely manifest itself in a hardening of Iran’s military posture, an intensification of Saudi-Iranian regional conflicts and a strengthening of the sectarian narrative in which extremism thrives. And for all the US heavy weapons sales to the Gulf, this is an asymmetrical battle that Iran is better equipped to win given its network of non-state military allies, experience fighting in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and greater willingness to invest blood in the fight.
This approach will, moreover, play directly into the hands of Iranian hardliners, weakening the already limited ability of the more pragmatic and newly re-elected President Hassan Rouhani to advance any positive shifts at all.
In Syria, the unfolding struggle for control of post-ISIS territories in the economically important east of the country is now likely to intensify. This could place Iran and the US in direct confrontation which could in turn impact Iraq, where more than 5,000 US troops are vulnerable to Iranian-linked militias. Tehran will also give greater importance than ever to ensuring its proxies come out on top in Baghdad as the territorial war against ISIS winds down, weakening Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s attempts to temper Iranian influence in the country.
Further afield, Iran could well see the benefit of feeding Houthi ambitions in Yemen through increased weapons supplies in a bid to tie down the Saudis. Lebanon is another place where a careful balance between Saudi and Iranian-backed groups, allowing for ongoing stability could come unstuck in the context of any wider escalatory cycle.
In assuming the position laid out in Riyadh Trump is now firmly aligning the US alongside Gulf actors in a devastating, regional war in a manner that will likely feed rather than temper conflict conditions. This increasingly risks drawing the US into the conflict as a more direct participant, particularly in Syria, a trajectory that recent history suggests has little stabilising potential. But even if it does not this approach closes down the space for the US to play any constructive role in pressing the different actors, notably Iran and Saudi, to rein in their worst impulses and move towards a necessary settlement that ultimately must account for mutual interests. In the end, it is a vision which will be welcomed by the likes of ISIS.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.