Mr. Trump Goes to Riyadh

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

May 26, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump has made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his maiden international trip. For many in the region, the choice of destination signals an important realignment in the region. Mr. Trump’s visit and his speech in the presence of 56 Arab Muslim leaders gathered in Riyadh received a generally warm welcome, with the notable and predictable exception of Iran, where officials and media observers are concerned about the rhetoric coming out of Washington.


Many in the region, including Arab News’s Reem Daffa have welcomed the president’s visit and see Mr. Trump’s prioritizing of U.S.-Saudi relations as a boon, both economically and politically, for both countries: “The mainstream media have used grand superlatives such as ‘extravagant’, ‘monumental’, and most frequently ‘historic’ to describe U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Most of these words refer to the lavish welcome that Trump received from the Saudi leadership, or the fact that Saudi Arabia is the first country to be visited by the president during his maiden foreign trip. However, there are far more nuanced reasons why this visit has all the potential to change the course of U.S.-Saudi bilateral relations, as well as history itself…. The significance of this vision stems from the now-obvious fact that the U.S. is Saudi Arabia’s primary partner in helping the Kingdom achieve its transformative Vision 2030. President Trump’s agreement with King Salman comes in the wake of 18 high-level U.S.-Saudi trade agreement deals that have been signed since January.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Mohammed bin Hamad al-Mady sees the expansion and deepening of U.S.-Saudi relations as a boon for Saudi Arabia’s own ambitions laid out in Vision 2030: “Bilateral ties have not been limited to politics, economy and education, but they have expanded to other fields that I have not mentioned, such as [the] military industry, which I hope will have a positive impact in achieving the goals of the new vision in nationalizing local military industries. The goal is to nationalize more than 50 percent of military spending [according to] Vision 2030. This demands direct investments and strategic partnerships with pioneering firms. This can be achieved through benefitting from the expertise of military industry companies in the US and other advanced countries…. Given the great expectations of our government, all indications point to a stronger future and firmer Saudi-US ties, especially on the economic and technical levels.”

Mr. Trump’s visit in the region also raised the possibility of restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, leading the Jerusalem Post’s editorial staff to suggest that the U.S. president’s greatest achievement in Israel may have been the “successful resuscitation of non-cynical discourse on the prospects of peace…. Maybe U.S. President Donald Trump really believes that, given recent developments in the region, peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible. Maybe he sees a successful conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a necessary preamble to economic cooperation and resurgence in the region led by the U.S. Maybe he sees it as a personal challenge – the ultimate deal…. Trump seems to have been impressed by his meeting with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia and their willingness to engage with Israel. But unlike Netanyahu, who envisions peace with the Palestinians as an extension of improved relations with the Arab nations of the region, Trump and the Arab leaders he met in Riyadh view resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a precursor to better ties between the Jewish state and the Muslim world.”

Not all were impressed with what Mr. Trump had to say, however. Ma’an News reports that Hamas officials in Gaza and other Palestinian politicians were angered by his characterization of Hamas and of the Palestinian armed struggle: “Palestinians in the Gaza Strip continued to express outrage over U.S. President Donald Trump calling out the Hamas movement — Gaza’s de facto leading party — in a list of terrorist organizations during a speech in Riyadh on Saturday before 50 leaders of Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Palestinians in Gaza from across the political spectrum united in denouncing the remarks, which have been interpreted as a blanket condemnation of all forms of Palestinian resistance…. Shortly after the speech was broadcast, Hamas reacted by accusing Trump of ‘complete bias’ toward the policies of the Israeli occupation by designating the movement as a terrorist organization. The designation ‘denies the Palestinian people’s legitimate right to resistance to liberate their land and holy places,’ Hamas, which identifies as an Islamist national resistance movement, said.”

In an op-ed for the Turkish daily Hurriyet Daily News, Ünal Çeviköz asks whether Mr. Trump’s visit to the region and the rhetoric coming out of Washington signal the start of a new, even more dangerous, “paradigm” in Suni-Shia relations: “Where are we heading in the Middle East? Is Trump’s visit to the Middle East aimed at enhancing intra-Islamic polarization that will be based on the Shiite-Sunni divide? In Iran, however, the recent presidential elections resulted in the victory of the incumbent president Hassan Rouhani, an ardent supporter of reform in his country…. As Trump is trying to antagonize Iran in the region by means of prioritizing Saudi Arabia and Israel in his first foreign trip, the Iranian people are looking for a reset with the new American president. The nuclear deal with Iran was not achieved easily. Its sustainability will be the demonstration of commitment to goodwill, stability and peace in the region. This is also what the Iranian people want. It would be a huge mistake to undermine the parameters of ‘détente’ in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf. Let us hope that Trump’s confrontational attitude will change with the message from the Iranian people and will not result in an undesired escalation in the region.”

Writing for the Daily News Egypt, Mohammed El-Said poses a similar question, stressing the importance of overcoming the mutual suspicions that characterize the countries in the region: “The U.S. president accused Iran of destabilizing the region by supporting terrorism and arming militias that spread destruction and chaos. He also said that Iranian policy is responsible for a lot of destruction in the region, in addition to its support to Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad….Gamal Zahran believes that Trump’s visit is an index to the increase of the American influence in the region and theoretically marks a decline of the Russian role. Zahran described Saudi Arabia as the U.S. agent in the Islamic world now, and the main goal of the summit was to create a fake conflict in the region between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, saying that the summit was a Sunni mobilization against Iran….Iranian affairs specialist Mohammed Mohsen Abou El-Nour believes that excluding Iran from the talks about terrorism in the region increases the problem and does not solve it, making it very difficult to reach a settlement.”

Understandably, Tehran has rejected Mr. Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric, calling on the U.S. president to end support for “non-democratic” governments in the region: “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi said the U.S. needed to put an end to its policy of double standards in the Middle East region, including its support for non-democratic regimes like the one in Bahrain….He added that the U.S. was responsible for future regional developments, citing Washington’s support for terrorist groups and its arms sales to certain countries of the region.”


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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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