Though the Saudi–U.S. security relationship was strong before Barack Obama left office, the Donald Trump administration has improved its tone and, from a Saudi perspective, some of its practical expressions. It is possible that the expanded use of U.S. air attacks and special forces in the Middle East will draw the United States into further military action against perceptible Saudi foes, including those backed by Iran. However, this could also strengthen the hand of Iran and undermine a shared interest in defeating militant Sunni Islamists.
There has been a major increase in U.S. drone attacks in Yemen under President Trump, focused on the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. According to U.S. press reports, there were more in March 2017 than over the whole of 2016. Likewise, the reported tempo and, according to statements by U.S. military officials, the potential scope of U.S. airstrikes against IS in Syria and Iraq has risen. The civilian death toll on all fronts has consequently also increased markedly. Regarding Yemen, the United States has decided to unfreeze the sale of precision-guided munitions to the Saudis, pending a mandatory Congressional review, after a contract had been blocked in December by Obama due to civilian casualties. This is a practical shift very much appreciated by the Saudis. It also sends the message that the failed attempt under Obama to promote a political solution in Yemen will, for the time being, be abandoned.
Both the United States and Saudi Arabia currently favor war, not politics, in Yemen. How long the Trump administration will remain wedded to this approach, however, will depend on its current Yemen policy review, which will not be finalized until sometime later in April. It is unclear whether the U.S. review will endorse a UAE proposal to secure U.S. armed backup for an Emirati attempt, with Saudi Arabia, to recapture the pivotal Red Sea port of Hodeida from the Houthis. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis backs the UAE proposal, apparently supported by the Saudis, on the basis that Iran is the principal threat to the United States’ Middle East interests generally and to the free flow of ships through the narrow Bab al-Mandab Red Sea chokepoint specifically, near where Houthi land-based forces have targeted the U.S. Navy.
A U.S.-backed liberation of Hodeida—and accompanying assurance of an open Bab al-Mandab Strait—would require a combination of air, naval, and ground assets that the Emiratis, with possible Saudi involvement, would partly rely on the United States for. A relatively limited U.S. naval role in a Gulf operation is possible, such as helping to tighten the existing blockade and unleashing strategic strikes, but the United States may not want direct involvement in a potentially escalating and risky military campaign, even if they do not at present see a political alternative to ongoing local and regional conflict. Saudi Arabia’s self-perceived security interests in Yemen are further complicated by the fact that the Emiratis have a much stronger ground presence in the south, in part because of the Saudi aversion to on-the-ground military action, in Yemen or anywhere else.
In truth, the Saudis may not want the military operation to go ahead but cannot admit to the intra-Gulf competition that encourages its reticence. If such an operation is successful, it could give the UAE a major role in determining the political future in southern Yemen and leverage over Red Sea security. While the Saudis plan to establish a naval facility in Djibouti, and are seeking the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands from Egypt, the Emiratis already have military-related assets in Djibouti and in Eritrea and are seeking a naval facility in northern Somalia. This better enables the Emiratis to complement U.S. efforts to maintain Red Sea security, particularly since the Trump administration announced that it will expand existing American drone strikes against Sunni militants in Somalia. Though this increased U.S. involvement in Red Sea security broadly pleases Saudi Arabia, the Saudis are also in emergent competition with the UAE for weight in the Red Sea area. The Saudis’ outstanding naval deal with the United States will probably overcome extant commercial wrangles. U.S.-supplied naval assets would enhance the kingdom’s existing ones from France, which also maintains strong ties to the UAE. For its part, the United States is more likely to promote Saudi interests over Emirati ones. The Saudis would like to increase their overall naval capacity, but they retain a long-standing dependence on contracting out maritime security. Though this will primarily remain focused on the United States, improved Saudi–Egyptian and U.S.–Egyptian ties could increase financing and capacity for mutual Red Sea security interests.
Ultimately, however, while Saudi Arabia would like to use closer U.S. ties to strengthen its hand against Iran in the Gulf, the United States still thinks that the Islamic State is a greater concern. Iran actually aids the anti-IS fight in Syria and Iraq, and the Saudis’ hoped for U.S. challenge to Iran in Syria is not going to materialize. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on March 30 that Bashar al-Assad’s political future is up to the Syrian people, even if low level U.S. and Saudi support for Syrian rebel groups continues, alongside Turkey’s more active backing of select Arab and Kurdish fighters. In Iraq there is no realistic alternative to the Iran-backed Shia Arab leadership.
The problem for the United States and Saudi Arabia is that a greater U.S. emphasis on its own firepower in both Syria and Iraq, even if alongside increased U.S. special forces on the ground, may increase the recruitment bases of IS or other Sunni militant groups due to the growth in civilian casualties. This risk is compounded if the United States and Saudi Arabia are unwilling to formally embrace Assad in Syria as the lesser of two evils, as he is already effectively described. In Yemen, there is currently no corresponding U.S. political realism. A greater U.S. military focus there is also good recruitment fodder for the Iran-backed Houthis. It also risks an indirect U.S. confrontation with Iran, even if the United States does not play an active military role in Yemen beyond supply and backup.
The Saudis may currently feel buoyed by the sound, and some fury, of the U.S. administration on Iran. However, a political deal is still needed in Yemen, and any agreement wrought with the Houthis will inevitably preserve some advantages for Iran. In Syria and Iraq, the defeat of IS requires continued U.S. cooperation with both Iran and Russia, and probably with their ally, Assad.
Neil Partrick is the editor and lead contributor to Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, 2016).