Donald Trump’s renewed ties with Saudi Arabia could intensify ‘regional cold war’ in Middle East, expert warns

Chloe Farand
US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on 14 March: AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump is renewing America's ties with Saudi Arabia and this could intensify the “regional cold war” in the Middle East, an expert has warned.

While relations between Barack Obama’s administration and Saudi Arabia turned from chilled to hostile since the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump is clearly distancing himself from his predecessor’s attitude towards the Gulf.

Following the meeting between President Trump and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week, the White House suggested Saudi Arabia would remain a close consultant to Mr Trump on security and economic challenges in the Middle East.

The Saudis also hailed a "historical turning point" in US-Saudi relations after the two leaders expressed shared views that Iran poses a regional security threat in the region.

Fawaz A Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and the Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies told The Independent: “We are witnessing a marked shift from the Obama administration to the Trump administration vis-a-vis the Gulf and Saudi Arabia."

He warned the shift in relationship between the two countries could see Saudi Arabia's proxy war with Iran intensify in Yemen, which is being torn apart by civil war.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are backing opposing sides in Syria and Yemen, accusing each other of terrorism and war crimes while denying interference.

“We are going to see an intensification of the fierce regional cold war between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran.

"We will see a shift from American relative neutrality to major engagement on the side of Saudi Arabia and this will have importance particularly in Yemen.

"Yemen is going to be the major theatre where the US is going to squeeze Iran,” said Professor Gerges.

This comes as Mr Trump reportedly gave the Pentagon permission to carry out more raids in Yemen.

“The Saudis are delighted that Barack Obama has left the White House. The consensus was that Obama was flirting with Iran at their own expense. The nuclear deal with Iran was the final thing that broke the camel’s back,” said Professor Gerges.

For the Saudis, Mr Trump is now seen as a like-minded ally over Iran, who is unlikely to scrutinise the Saudi government over human rights issues.

On the other hand, Mr Trump is keen to see an increased commitment of fighting Isis in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia could be key in committing to it, he said.

“What the Saudis care about and the only thing they care about is Iran. They believe that Iran represents an existential threat to Saudi Arabia.

“Donald Trump and his team have a visceral hatred of Iran and has made it very clear that Iran is a troublemaker and a supporter of terrorism. The Saudis view the Trump administration through the lens of its stance with Iran," he said.

Professor Gerges said the debate over Mr Trump's 'Muslim travel ban' and views on Palestine were secondary and that the US-Saudi relationship relied on a shared position over Iran.

“The Trump administration has already increased the volume of its hostile rhetoric towards Iran,” he said.

The meeting between Mr Trump and Prince bin Salman was one of a host of high-level meetings between officials from both countries and the White House is showing signs that Saudi Arabia may be taking an influential role in shaping its policies in the Middle East.

Both Iran and Yemen have been listed in Mr Trump’s travel ban and while the Saudis welcome Mr Trump’s hard-line on Iran, US officials said the President was considering ending a ban on US weapon sales to the Saudis.

The suspension of the arms trade with Saudi Arabia had been implemented by Mr Obama in response to thousands of civilians being killed in the conflict in Yemen.

The relationship between the two countries will also not be limited to diplomatic ties and during the meeting, the two sides discussed the creation of a new US-Saudi programme, which would start initiatives in the energy, industry, infrastructure, and technology sectors, with opportunities worth more than $200 billion (£162bn) the statement from the White House said.