Mohammed bin Zayed visits Trump ahead of US president’s trip to Saudi Arabia

Sheikh Mohammed's talks with Donald Trump at the White House are expected to focus on enhancing cooperation on counterterrorism, confronting Iran and other regional issues in an increasingly close relationship between the US and the UAE.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, will hold talks with the US president Donald Trump in Washington on May 15, 2017. WAM
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Abu Dhabi // Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed will hold talks at the White House with Donald Trump on Monday to discuss enhancing cooperation on counterterrorism, confronting Iran and other core issues in the increasingly close relationship.

Over the course of what is expected to be a two-day visit to Washington, Sheikh Mohammed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, is also scheduled to meet the US secretaries of defence and state, and to brief senior members of congress.

The visit is the culmination of talks between UAE officials and the US administration that began soon after Mr Trump was elected, aimed at “trying to lay the framework for a constructive bilateral partnership”, said Brian Katulis, senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress, who discussed the visit with top officials in Abu Dhabi last week.

The meeting will “give more definition to what measures the United States and Gulf countries can do together across the spectrum, from Yemen to Iraq to Syria to countering Iran’s influence,” Mr Katulis said.

The Crown Prince’s first official talks with the Trump administration come only days before the US president embarks on his first overseas trip, beginning in Riyadh. Mr Trump will hold talks with the Saudi leadership, GCC countries and heads of state of Muslim-majority nations that are part of the Islamic Military Alliance organised by Riyadh.

Preparation for the talks in the kingdom will be an important part of Sheikh Mohammed’s trip, according to observers and those familiar with the planning.

“For the Americans, [Sheikh Mohammed] can provide an in-depth and comprehensive portrait of the new Saudi leadership, which is invaluable. For the Emiratis, they benefit, like other partners, from a successful Trump visit,” said Bilal Saab, chair of the Gulf Policy Working Group at the Atlantic Council think tank. “So coming here to pave the way for it is key.”

Mr Trump’s interactions even with traditional western allies such as Australia and Italy have sometimes been erratic, and the president is not used to long bilateral and multilateral meetings with multiple heads of state.

“It’s a friend of a friend coming over and saying this is going to be an important trip, let us help you understand the ground realities,” said Stephen Seche, a former US ambassador to Yemen and executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “It’s still a sharp learning curve situation for the White House to understand a very prickly and difficult to fathom regional situation.”

Mr Trump met Prince Mohammed bin Salman, deputy crown prince and defence minister of Saudi Arabia, in Washington in March. While the White House is looking to work more closely with Riyadh, Sheikh Mohammed’s visit is also an opportunity to show that the UAE plays a unique role for the US.

Since Mr Trump was elected last year, Emirati leaders and officials, including the Ambassador to Washington, have become key interlocutors for the White House inner circle on the regional issues most important to the administration, with fighting ISIL and Al Qaeda, and confronting Iran, at the top of the list.

Despite a deficit in trust that built up between most Gulf states and Barack Obama, the UAE was still viewed by the former administration, and the US congress, as the most important Arab partner because of its military capabilities and opposition to religious extremism.

For a Trump administration whose regional priority is defeating ISIL, while also reducing US commitments abroad by relying on allies, the UAE’s role has come to be seen as even more crucial.

“Trump will be looking for regional partners who can help him secure immediate wins in foreign policy, and the UAE is very well placed to contribute, especially on the counter-terrorism front, which matters more than anything else to Trump,” Mr Saab said.

The security and military relationship is the heart of ties between Washington and Abu Dhabi, and will become more important as the White House national security staff continues to draft a new counter-terrorism strategy that, according to Mr Katulis, will place an even greater share of the burden on the shoulders of partners like the UAE.

“We made a decision [in 2014] that we weren’t going to do it like we’d done the original Iraq war, we were going to do it by, with and through local partners … and I think that model is something that the United States would like to have with the Emiratis,” said Andrew Exum, a deputy assistant secretary of defence for Middle East policy during the last two years of the Obama administration.

“That is a strategic dream come true for US military planners because the more that we have competent partners the less we have to be invested personally, but the more we might be willing to share intelligence, train together and even operate together,” Mr Exum added. “And so I think that both the Obama administration and the Trump administration see the value proposition in the UAE, and specifically in the UAE military.”

US and UAE special forces are working together in Yemen against Al Qaeda, and both countries are also involved in fighting the Al Shabab extremist group in Somalia. In early 2016, then US defence secretary Ash Carter announced that UAE special forces were to help train and advise local forces in Syria along with US counterparts.

“The Emirati special operations forces are quite good, so to the degree that the US can initially fight alongside but then eventually [allow] the Emiratis to counter what we perceive to be shared threats, that would be ideal for the United States,” Mr Exum said.

Concerns by the previous White House over the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen have been dropped by Mr Trump’s administration, which is reviewing its Yemen policy and ways that it can help the coalition. “That removes a key sticking point that had existed in the bilateral security relationship,” Mr Exum added.

The new administration is in the final stages of an arms deal reportedly worth $300 billion (Dh1.1 trillion) over the next decade to Riyadh, and a separate resupply sale of missiles for UAE Patriot defence systems. While congress, which has blocked previous sales over Yemen concerns, will have to review and approve the sales over the next weeks, they serve as tangible measures to help the positive atmosphere around the US-Gulf talks. For its part, Riyadh is reportedly in talks to invest up to US$40bn in the US.

Ahead of the talks, the UAE embassy also highlighted the United States’ $19bn trade surplus with the UAE last year, which it said was the third-highest for the US, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs and providing the largest export market in the Mena region.

While the new tone in relations and high levels of trust between the Gulf powers and Washington continue to peak, it is still unclear how this will translate into policies and actions that are different from Mr Trump’s predecessor.

Although Mr Trump may look to sell more weapons to Riyadh, his administration’s review of Yemen policy has not led to a greater direct US role in the fight against Houthi rebels. US military planners have not agreed to support an assault on the port of Hodeidah, because they have not yet seen a plan they think can work, Mr Seche said.

“I think the tricky thing for the Emiratis and the Saudis for that matter, is actually getting concrete commitments from the Trump administration, and the follow-up on those commitments,” Mr Katulis said. “What we’ve seen from the new US administration is an attempt to set a different tone with the leadership of many of the countries of the region but we haven’t yet seen substantive policy shifts that are strategic or meaningful.”