Donald Trump’s administration announced on February 3, 2017, that it will put new sanctions against individuals and organizations who it says are “supporters of Iran’s ballistic missile program and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force” following the country’s test launch of a ballistic missile.
Not long before, Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman had a telephone conversation in which they affirmed the “depth and durability of the strategic relations between the two countries”, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. In the call, the White House also stressed the “importance of rigorously enforcing” the nuclear deal with Iran — the landmark agreement between Iran and six world powers on scaling back Iran’s nuclear program — as well as “addressing Iran’s destabilizing regional activities”.
Iran has offered support to Syria’s embattled Bashar al-Assad and certain groups throughout the region, which has led Saudi Arabian officials to accuse Iran of sponsoring terrorism. Predictably, the statement made no mention of Saudi Arabia’s own actions, notably its military intervention in Yemen or the groups it itself has funded.
In this context, many Saudis took to social media to celebrate the new sanctions against Iran with the hashtag #TrumpWarnsIranianTerrorism, which trended in Saudi Arabia on February 4.
It’s not too shocking that Trump’s hardline on Iran would find support in Saudi Arabia, which has a frosty relationship with Iran. The two countries severed diplomatic relations in January 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric and angry Iranian crowds overran Saudi diplomatic missions, but the animosity has a long history.
And Saudi Arabia is traditionally an ally of the US. Many have speculated that the friendly relationship won’t be changing anytime soon, given Trump has business ties in the country.
What this story also reveals is how Saudi media is generally speaking positively about the Trump administration’s foreign policy regarding Iran. A January 2017 statement by the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir at a news conference in Riyadh read:
We are very very optimistic about Trump Administration. And on working closely with it to deal with the many challenges, not only in our region but in the world. I say what I say about our positive outlook because we have had contact with Trump Administration, and we feel very positively about it.
This sentiment is being echoed by Saudi elites. Saudi commentator and general manager of Al-Arabiya television Abdulrahman Al-Rashed wrote that:
Trump’s administration considered Iran as part of the problem while the previous administration insisted that Iran was part of the solution. All these are significant developments that aim to end the chaos in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq and unite powers to chase and combat terrorist groups.
The Saudi Twitter campaign to “thank” Trump via the hashtag was first launched by Turki Al-Dakhil, the general manager of Al Arabiya Television News Network in Dubai, who called on people to “tweet under this hashtag in English to thank Trump for confronting Iranian terrorism”.
— 500k طفيشآن (@6fshan011) February 5, 2017
— م. خالد المانع (@KhaledHas7) February 5, 2017
— Yousef Al Naimi (@YousefAlNaimi) February 4, 2017
‘Any war on Iran means we all going to be devastated’
But not all Saudis believe that Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric represents a change in US policy. Abdulaziz Al-Suwayed, a Saudi writer at major pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat, argued in an article that the Trump administration’s threats against Iran are nothing new in US foreign policy:
The new administration’s campaigns against the Mullahs’s regime in Iran [term widely use in Saudi media to describe the Iranian government] are nothing more than mere statements by the president and the advisers repeating after him. As for the new sanctions imposed on companies linked to Iran, they are nothing new. The previous administration did the same gradually, but on the other hand was giving Iran hundreds of millions of dollars, and also cooperated in Iraq which gave rise up to its operations in Yemen.
And beyond the warmongering rhetoric that seems to be dominating in elite sectors of Saudi society, many Saudis are actually expressing concerns of what escalating tensions would mean for everyone in the region.
This piece was first published in Global Voices.