Six months after his surprising election as President of the United States of America, Donald Trump is making his maiden foreign trip next week. Equally surprising is the choice of country he will visit first – Saudi Arabia (followed by Israel and the Vatican, among others).
The Kingdom has been the United States’ key ally in the region since 1940s. Their relationship has been rooted in the link between Saudi oil supply to the world and US’s security backing for it.
However, Trump’s election campaign was replete with anti-Islam slurs and an unfavourable disposition towards Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia. This indicated that Washington’s disengagement with the Middle East, which began with President Barack Obama, would intensify.
But, in what appears to be a course correction, the Trump administration is killing three birds with one stone with the proposed visit.
First, in meeting the Saudi leadership, Washington is mending fences with the Kingdom; two, by holding discussions with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, it is providing fresh assurance about the United States remaining engaged in the region; and finally, three, by interacting with leaders from 56 Muslim countries, the message is to set aside the tension surrounding divisive rhetoric.
In a major development ahead of Trump’s visit, a delegation from the UAE led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, visited the US and held several rounds of bilateral meetings on Tuesday.
Media reports suggested that the Crown Prince’s meeting with the President was very warm and had the potential to open a new era of UAE-US relations.
One of the main objectives of the Crown Prince’s two-day visit was to help Trump prepare for his visit to Saudi Arabia and for his meeting with Muslim leaders.
Key issues on the table
On the collective discussion agenda are issues pertaining to countering Daesh militants and other forms of extremism, the festering wars in Yemen and Syria, the refugee crisis, checking Iran’s influence in the region and, perhaps, even the Palestinian-Israeli talks.
More specifically, reports citing White House officials point out that among the other issues that would get considerable attention are threats of ballistic missiles and maritime shipping in the Red Sea, as well as “de-escalation zones” in Syria to provide a haven for refugees.
Since the Riyadh meetings are scheduled to take place within days of the Iranian Presidential election, its outcome and implications would very much be part of the talking shop.
At the bilateral level, the United States is close to finalizing a $100 billion arms deal with the Kingdom, which would be a priority. More importantly, Riyadh will push for intensifying US-Saudi economic ties as part of a growing campaign to diversify the nation’s economy, in line with the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, which gels well with Trump’s “America first” policy.
While these issues would form substantive part of the formal talks, the theatrics surrounding them will assume greater significance in the backdrop of several disagreements between the two sides in recent times.
In August 2015, Trump had said that he was not a “big fan” of the Kingdom and that Washington had paid a huge price to “back them up”. He repeated this claim in April 2017: “Frankly, Saudi Arabia has not treated us fairly, because we are losing a tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia.”
Further, in the early months of his presidency, Trump came good on his campaign promise by issuing an executive order temporarily prohibiting new visas to enter the United States for citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. This has enveloped into a legal battle that continues to play out in the US courts.
Amid these developments, the “historical turning point”, according to Riyadh, came after a meeting between Trump and Saudi deputy crown prince in Washington in March.
What followed was a dramatic turnaround.
After years of hands-off approach on Syria by the Obama administration, Washington fired 59 missiles at a Syrian air base in response to an alleged chemical attack by the regime, which killed and wounded scores of Syrians.
For Saudi Arabia, this marked such a positive intent that Prince Mohammed bin Salman described Trump as “a president who will bring America back to the right track…Trump has not yet completed 100 days, and he has restored all the alliances of the United States with its conventional allies.”
Through all this, Iran has been the unifying factor between the United States and the GCC countries. While the Obama administration rubbed the GCC countries on the wrong side by facilitating the signing of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers, the Trump administration has been hawkish on the Islamic Republic.
Though it may be difficult for Washington to unilaterally revoke what is otherwise a multilateral deal, the rhetoric about such a possibility has been comforting for the GCC countries.
In this milieu, the scheduled visit is certainly a breakthrough in the frosty relations between the United States and the Muslim countries. However, given the diminishing intensity in their ties over the last decade, it is hard to forecast the specifics of the future course of their relationship.
This unpredictability is relevant in light of the relationship going from bad to worse despite Obama visiting the Kingdom on four occasions during his eight-year tenure.
On his first visit to the Middle East in 2009, Obama addressed the Muslim world from Cairo University. His “A New Beginning” speech, however, did little to prevent America’s ties with the region from plummeting to one of its lowest points ever.
Despite the logic behind Obama’s policies and the sequence of events thereafter, given the vulnerable security scenario in the region and the absence of any credible alternative security guarantor in the immediate future, Trump’s impending “historic” visit serves as a much-needed shot in the arm for GCC-US ties.