When President Donald Trump visited Riyadh last spring, the kingdom greeted him not so much with sabre rattling as sabre dancing.
The warm welcome from King Salman bin Abdulazizsignalled the start of a blossoming friendship for Trump, perhaps one of the most stable foreign relationships his administration has seen so far. Yet Trump’s fondness for Saudi Arabia has eroded the USA’s other tenuous relationships in the Gulf region. Fresh off his May trip to Riyadh, Trump tweeted on 6 June: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”
The tweet sent both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis scrambling. Although a controversial ally, Qatar also hosts US Central Command’s forward operating centre at Al-Udeid air base. The relatively small Gulf nation has also established itself as a robust and loyal consumer of US-made arms, buying $9.9 billion worth of weapons in 2015, according to a 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service.
Meanwhile, Trump is bent on isolating another Saudi Arabian rival by attempting to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal. Negotiated during the Obama administration, the 2015 international agreement lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country rolling back its threatening nuclear programme.
Trump’s disorder has not fazed US defence contractors, which are still banking on healthy foreign military sales to sustain them. During a 24 October earnings call, Lockheed Martin chief executive Marillyn Hewson pointed to her company’s growing international portfolio as one way to weather a domestic budget crisis.
“We are not totally reliant on the US budget for growth going forward,” Hewson says.
Although Trump’s protectionist “America First” policy is viewed as a trade depressant when it comes to the commercial market, the slogan could convert into a potent push for foreign military sales. Trump has already embraced the FMS deals as domestic job creators which also happen to forge a relationship between the buyer and the US military. The sales also represent a bilateral deal, an area Trump feels is part of his comfort zone.
“There’s definitely been a push in the administration to ‘buy America’ and bring more jobs to the US,” says Todd Harrison at the Center for International and Strategic Studies. “I think that’s translated in defence acquisition to push US companies to do more sales overseas and the government taking more active role.”
As much as Trump wants to distance himself from former President Barack Obama, he has inherited historic weapons deals from the previous administration that cement a foundation for continued ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel, and maintain a crucial stalemate between the two states. Obama determined to distinguish his foreign policy in the Middle East from his predecessor’s by emphasising a strategy that took boots off the ground. But where nation building receded, arms deals flourished. Although not all sales were completed by the end of his administration, Obama offered Saudi Arabia more than $115 billion in arms, more than any president in 70 years.
In its usual effort to balance the scales between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the US also inked a historic agreement in 2016, signing the largest military assistance package in US history with a $38 billion, 10-year package to Tel Aviv.
Both of those weapons packages have carried over into the Trump administration, which has taken on the $110 billion Saudi Arabian sale as its own victory, although the majority of the deal was negotiated by the Obama administration.
“What you see is a continuity,” says Edward Gnehm, professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula affairs at George Washington University. “I don’t see anything new in fact. The reports on the very dramatic announcements while [Trump] was in Riyadh, what you’ll hear was begun under the Obama administration [and] has to go through a long bureaucratic process.”
Under Obama, the US supported Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, providing targeting information and air-to-air refuelling. But Obama also took some steps to walk Saudi Arabia back from its role in exacerbating the humanitarian crisis there by denying the sale of precision guided munitions. Trump further emboldened the kingdom when he stripped that provision and re-inserted Raytheon’s Paveway II laser-guided munition into the deal last May. His full-throated support for Saudi Arabia has also added fuel to the fire in the ongoing dispute with Qatar.
Tamara Wittes, a senior fellow studying Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, acknowledges that Trump’s concerns over Qatar financing terrorism in the region are valid. While the US has pushed all of the Gulf states to do more to combat extremism, Qatar has relatively lagged while others have made strides, Wittes says. However, the consensus in Washington is that a divided Gulf is more detrimental to the overall fight against terrorism, she says.
“I think there are a number of analysts that say it might be the very uncritical support [from] Trump that may have emboldened the Saudis and Emirates to believe they could pursue this argument with the Qataris with American support or at least acquiescence,” she says.
Saudi Arabia’s willingness to use force to pursue its foreign policy objectives in Yemen, along with the United Arab Emirates' emergence as a fairly active military power, will both stoke sales in the region, says Andrew Hunter at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The Iran deal just kind of adds to that. It may be the impetus behind why some of these nations feel they need to be more aggressive in the region” Hunter says. “But I think there’s multiple factors including they’ve been building capacity for decades and they now they have an opportunity to do something they wouldn’t have been able to do 20 years ago.”
Analysts predict that arms sales will continue to grow in the Gulf region under Trump, but whether those sales boost the stocks of US or foreign companies is up for debate. US influence in the Gulf was waning long before Trump took office. America’s hold on the region began receding once the US toppled Saddam Hussein and his Sunni minority government in Iraq, leaving a power vacuum that the Sunni-led terror group al-Qaeda and later ISIS would exploit. Russia then cemented its role as a major player in the region with a critical air base in western Syria and its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout the country’s violent civil war.
Foreign military sales not only mark a transfer of equipment, they establish diplomatic and operational ties. With the balance of power shaken in the region, some Gulf states are reassessing whether they should sink all their resources into the US or establish more ties with Russia or China. With Trump – whose only predictable strategy is acting unpredictably – added to the mix, any terra firma that was left in the region has been upset.
“He’s the chaos president and chaos is really good for arms sales,” says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president at consultancy Teal Group. “With chaos there’s uncertainty and disorder. You never know who your friends are, which encourages countries to diversify their arms sources.”
Russia could establish a foothold in the region with its sophisticated air defence systems. Outside the Gulf, Russia has already made gains with an estimated $2 billion sale of its S-400 surface-to-air missile system to Turkey, despite protests from other NATO member states. This October, talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman resulted in a memorandum of understanding for S-400s. The news preceded a 6 October announcement from the US State Department approving a possible foreign military sale to Saudi Arabia of Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system worth $15 billion, showing the kingdom’s willingness to split its resources and loyalties.
Even as Moscow makes inroads with Riyadh, the US could still dominate where Russia’s defence industrial base has a chink in its armour. While Russian helicopters have proven their worth in the Middle East and the US has struggled for years to find a suitable replacement for the Afghan air force’s sturdy Mil Mi-17s, Russian fighter jets have faltered due to weak support in the aftermarket, says Gordon Adams, a professor of US Foreign Policy at American University.
“One thing countries like Saudi Arabia can count on is the aftermarket supply with the US,” he says. “The Russian kits tend to break down. When the Russians can’t provide timely and affordable [replacements] you’re going to be careful about going into a relationship with them.”
Although Russia may have its eye on expanding its arms sales into the region, Wittes says it may not be willing to commit the same type of in-depth, bilateral relationship the US has forged with the Gulf states.
“Of course it would be to their advantage financially as well as diplomatically,” she says. “But… I don’t anticipate we’re going to see Russia committing to freedom of navigation in the Gulf, for example. I think there’s a natural limit on what such a relationship means to the countries of the Gulf.”
Other recent partnerships in the Gulf may come down to personal relationships, rather than operational needs, Aboulafia says. The co-operation between Ukraine’s Antonov and Saudi partners King Abdulaziz City of Science and Industry (KACST) and Taqnia Aeronautics Company on the Antonov An-132D light transport aircraft may mark a novel partnership, but does not signal a significant pivot away from US or Western suppliers.
Qatar serves as the best example of a Gulf state determined not to put all its eggs into the American basket, Aboulafia says. A small state jutting out into the Persian Gulf, Qatar has made a considerable investment in its fighter fleet, with intended purchases of Eurofighter Typhoons, French Rafales and US Boeing F-15s. But the fighter sales are not signalling a newly bellicose nation bent on creating an indomitable fleet.
“Each of those purchases is merely a hedge against someone else not supporting them,” Aboulafia says. “They’re buying relationships, not fighters. They decided it was wise to add a third country to their insurance policy list.”
That may be prudent, considering that Trump abandoned Qatar earlier this year as he cozied up to Saudi Arabia. Despite efforts from Tillerson and Mattis to quell the Saudi-Qatar dispute, the US has not emerged as the lead negotiator, as it might have once been during the George W Bush years. Instead, Kuwait, which has experience keeping the peace at home between Sunni and Shia Muslims, has stepped in to mediate the conflict.
“The US is not playing a very strong hand in the region; the parties are going to have to settle it themselves and the US might facilitate,” Hunter says. “It’s not going to be like in the Bush years where Dick Cheney would have flown in and a deal would be cut.”