By Wajahat Qazi
Donald Trump , in his maiden visit to Saudi Arabia, as president of the United States, has waxed lyrical about the nature of United States’ relationship or even alliance with the Saudis and his expectations from them. Stripped of accretions and rhetoric, Trump has essentially revalidated and reaffirmed support for the United States alliance with Saudi Arabia propped the country up as a counterweight to Iran and pledged support to the country. On the face of it, Saudis given the fluidity and flux that defines the region- Iran’s assertiveness, the intensification of the Sunni- Shi’ite schism and conflict, the various proxy wars and the overall structural decrepitude of the Saudi economy- would be elated at Trump’s offer of support and validation. But as Trump has alluded to, the premise behind his approach to the Saudi’s is based on realism- the school of international relations which is based on interest, power and stability. Saudis must be realist too and extract maximum leverage and dividends from the alliance.
What could be the nature of this quid pro quo?
First, while Saudi Arabia must cannibalize the alliance for its security needs, it must also be careful not to be used against any nation in the region- especially Iran. The reasons largely pertain to the fact that interests of nations are not set in stone and the nature of the power political world that we inhabit is fluid in terms of both system and structure. Moreover, the United States is in relative decline. The shape and form of international relations , say in a span of a decade (less or more), might be in stark contrast to today. In essence then Saudi Arabia must keep its options open. This means , among other things, not solely relying on the United States for security and allied needs. Diversification would be key here. The Saudis, as insurance against the ups and downs of international relations and alliance politics thereof, could look toward Pakistan and perhaps even Turkey as partners to hedge the country’s bets. In the meantime, negotiating channels with Iran must not be closed down.
In terms of the economy, the Saudis have no choice other than to diversify the economy and build a new “ business model” to predicate their economy upon. A mono-cultural , resource based economy has started to yield diminishing returns and it is about time to “restructure” the economy of the Saudi state. This, among other things, could mean the obvious: trim extensively the bloated public sector of the state, gradually phase out subsidies , and build a social safety net to cushion the shocks and effects. But key here is building the “human capital” of the country. This does not mean “Saudization” but building the educational edifice of the country though huge investments in the education- primary, secondary and higher- sector. Given that oil is the “commodity” that the Saudi economy could be said to be built around, diversification cannot realistically take the form and shape of “tradables”(narrowly defined). The way out is a knowledge based service economy. Again key here would be human capital oriented around higher end of the Information, Communication and Technology(ICT) spectrum. This is doable- eminently so. However, building this paradigm would entail breaking past paradigms and economic theories that the Saudi economy has been built upon. Disaggregated, all this would mean ensconsing the Saudi economy in and around global flows of trade, technology and communication. Here , the role of the United States assumes significance. The country’s expertise and reach in high tech domains should be sought by the Saudis and then replicated in Saudi Arabia. Clusters and tech sectors modeled along the lines of Silicon Valley and links with it must be built and high tech entrepreneurship encouraged. But again diversification is important here. The Saudis must build trade and technology bridges with China as well.
Another important domain that the Saudis must seek to capitalize upon is the treatment of Muslims in the United States. If Trump has lauded and appreciated Islam and its civilization in his speech and held Saudi Arabia as the centre of gravity of the Muslim world, he must be held to it. This too is doable given that he has made these pronouncements in public and full media glare. If Trump, for instance, targets Muslims in the United States as he promised in his campaign trail, he must be held to account against the back drop of his speech.
All these steps and measures, though not exhaustive , fall in the domain of the possible. The Saudis must seek and extract maximum benefits from the United States. This is what realism demands and it is what the Saudis must do. The United States is reviewing its foreign policy orientation and approaches. This includes the nature of the relationship with Saudi Arabia. Viewing Trump’s outreach as continuation of the past would constitute a mistake. The Saudis must also undergo a review and approach the relationship in consonance with the spirit of realism. Any other approach would be mushy and muddleheaded. The time for realistic clarity is now.
—The author can be reached: email@example.com