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Feature Article
2017-02-16

Taking the Measure of the New Administration: Change in Store, but for Whom?

Despite U.S. President Trump's unorthodox style, Saudi has appeared to take the new administration in stride. This is not solely due to diplomatic niceties; the royals are cautiously optimistic that the Americans will lend their weight to a regional effort to contain and confront Iran, a matter which overshadows all else. But the appearance of Trump on the scene threatens to upend royal family domestic politics as well.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Incoming U.S. President Donald Trump, declared on February 15 during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his administration was open to both a two-state and one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sending shock waves through foreign capitals. The sharp pivot from decades of established policy seemed to confirm widespread worries that the new president would be openly hostile to Arab interests, especially in light of his previous comments on moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. Alarm bells had already been set off by the chaotic rollout of a hastily implemented travel ban, which targeted only Muslim countries, and the news conference that day only added to the fear in the Arab world that relations were about to enter a death spiral.

Yet later on the same day, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said that Washington "absolutely" supports a two-state solution. Later she reiterated that there had been no change in policy. The confusion has not been formally resolved, as the administration stumbles from one crisis to the next and the media moves on to the newest headline, but apart from the expected protestations of outrage from Palestinian leadership, the reaction to Trump's comments was noticeably muted in the Gulf States. This has partly to do with the fact the the monarchies there are for the most part adopting a "wait and see" approach, giving the new administration the benefit of the doubt while it works through the complexities of the transition, but also from the appreciation that they are dealing with a very different sort of character. In the diplomatic world, leaders are thoroughly briefed by their staff on the personalities and indeed, the idiosyncrasies, of their foreign counterparts before meetings, and many understand that this seemingly "different" approach to the Arab-Israeli peace is very likely to simply be the manifestation of Trump's apparent need for positive reinforcement from those with whom he comes into personal contact. The same dynamic has been seen at play before, notably in the case of his meeting with the Mexican president before the election, when everything Trump stood for seemed to be have been turned on its head after the personal meeting (only for him to revert to his previous campaign rhetoric later on the same day). Gulf leaders will be watching closely to see if Trump backs off his press conference statements. They also understand that he is famously averse to in-depth briefings, and assess that the remarks may also have been the result of both lack of familiarity with the issues, and ill-preparedness. The peace process "reset" could have been an ill-conceived attempt to play to Netanyahu's domestic support, with little real appreciation of how that would be perceived elsewhere (or in Israel, for that matter).

In the public realm, of course, all is well. A number of meetings have taken place with senior officials from both sides, including military leaders. The Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, met U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on February 16 on the sidelines of the meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Bonn. According to al-Jubeir, "we can see eye to eye with the US on the issue of Iran, on Syria, on Lebanon, on fight against Da'esh and on Yemen." Behind the scenes meetings may also have clarified the meaning of Trump's comments on the peace process. The Saudi leadership has also made a number of public statements expressing assurance in the new administration, as expected. Despite misgivings stemming from polarizing campaign rhetoric, Saudi seems open to working with Trump, and is at the very least confident of better relations than were seen during Obama's time in office. The royal family deeply resented the emphasis the Obama White House placed on human rights, at the expense of what they saw as a refusal to confront the realities of Iranian aggression in the region.

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Page 2: heralding change, or a step backwards?
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