U.S. Travel Restrictions Put Saudi Arabia in a Bind

By MARGHERITA STANCATI in Dubai and AHMED AL OMRAN in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Wall Street Journal
Jan. 30, 2017

Monarchy’s desire to cultivate good relations with Trump administration run counter to outcry in Muslim world over ban

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to the religion’s two holiest sites, has long used its religious clout to project its role as a regional leader. Now that same clout has caught the kingdom in a prickly dilemma.

The monarchy’s desire to cultivate a better relationship with the Trump administration than it had with the U.S. under Barack Obama is exposing Saudi Arabia to criticism that it is unwilling to stand up for its Muslim allies, particularly those caught in an executive order that restricts entry to the U.S. for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries.

“The ban puts Saudi Arabia in an awkward position,” said Ibrahim Fraihat, a professor of conflict resolution at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. “Saudi Arabia will be expected to take a position against it because some of the countries included in the ban like Sudan and Yemen are key allies and because it projects itself as leader of the Muslim world.”

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment.

President Donald Trump spoke on Sunday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman about Middle East refugees, the deal to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and improved security relations between the two countries, the White House said.

“The president requested and the King agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts,” the White House said.

A statement carried on the official Saudi Press Agency said “the view of the two leaders were identical” on issues that included confronting terrorism and extremism, along with countering “those who seek to undermine security and stability in the region and interfere in the internal affairs of other state,” a reference to Iran and to the activities of its regional proxies.

The White House also said they agreed on the “importance of rigorously enforcing” the nuclear deal Iran struck with other world powers including the U.S. in 2015. Mr. Trump and Saudi officials have repeatedly criticized the agreement, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Saudi leaders enthusiastically greeted Mr. Trump’s election, voicing hope that the new president’s hard-line stance on rival Iran meshed with the kingdom’s strategic goals. Iran is among the seven Muslim-majority countries covered by the 90-day visa moratorium, but so are countries Saudi Arabia regards as allies.

The ban applies to citizens of Sudan, a member of the coalition of Muslim countries assembled by Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism. Also included is Yemen, where Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in 2015 against Iran-backed Houthi rebels with the aim of restoring President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power. The ban applies to Syrians fleeing their country’s war, too, and Riyadh is a key supporter of Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad as well as his Iranian and Russian backers.

Saudi Arabia has produced more extremists that went on to carry out attacks on U.S. soil than any of the countries directly affected by the ban. Osama bin Laden, the late head of al Qaeda, was from one of the kingdom’s most prominent business families and 15 of the 19 Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were Saudi. Only Tunisia has contributed more foreign fighters to Islamic State, according to a 2015 study by the Soufan Group, a security consultancy.

Appearing on NBC on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus left open the possibility that Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt and Pakistan—all close U.S. allies—could be added. But former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who helped draft the executive order, told Fox News on Saturday that Saudi Arabia wasn’t included because “it is going through a massive change,” adding, “It is not the old Saudi Arabia.”

A ban on travel from Saudi Arabia would have far-reaching consequences, disrupting a commercial and military alliance that has long helped shape U.S. involvement in the region. It would also affect the tens of thousands of Saudi students enrolled in U.S. colleges under government-funded scholarships.

Saudi officials have kept mum on the new U.S. visa restrictions. But when Mr. Trump first floated the idea of a Muslim ban, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir described the proposal as “very very dangerous,” saying it would deepen divisions between people of different faiths. But during a press conference in Riyadh last Tuesday, said he was “very very optimistic about the Trump administration.” He praised Mr. Trump’s cabinet choices, including Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.

In putting its faith in Mr. Trump’s presidency, Saudi Arabia had hoped the White House would reverse Mr. Obama’s policy of outreach to Iran, which culminated with the nuclear deal. Riyadh says the deal has empowered Tehran to interfere in Arab affairs, sowing instability in the region.

But some analysts say that assuming the Trump presidency will be good for the region when so little is known about his Middle East policy is overly optimistic.

“They are putting their heads in the sand about the anti-Muslim bigotry,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who blamed “a mixture of wishful thinking and willful blindness.”

—William Mauldin in Washington contributed to this article.

  1. No comments yet.

You must be logged in to post a comment.