Fresh US leadership role in the Middle East
As Donald Trump lands in Riyadh, he will become the first US president to make his inaugural foreign tour to an Arab or Muslim country. In Riyadh, besides the bilateral summit with King Salman, Trump will meet with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and separately with selected members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
So under the banner “Together We Prevail,” he will meet more than 40 Arab and Muslim leaders. King Salman has expressed hope that the summit “will establish a new partnership in confronting extremism and terrorism.” Trump’s visit to the Kingdom will highlight the success of Saudi outreach to the new administration, and the president’s determination to recommit to the Saudi-led alliance to confront Iran’s regional ambitions.
The basis for the anti-Iran alliance has already been put into place by Trump’s senior officials who visited the region recently. Defense Secretary James Mattis declared in Riyadh that the US “wants to see a strong Saudi Arabia,” and “there is disorder wherever Iran is present.”
Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining US interests... A comprehensive Iran policy requires that we address all of the threats posed by Iran.”
To signal the solid bilateral strategic partnership that is in place and to boost Saudi defense capabilities, the US and Saudi Arabia are said to have finalized contracts worth $100 billion in defense sales to the Kingdom. Items include the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, and a C2BMC software system for battle command and control and communications.
Other items being purchased are combat vehicles and a $11.5 billion package of four multi-mission surface combat ships. According to administration sources, defense deals could go over $350 billion over the next decade.
On the eve of Trump’s arrival, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) announced the launch of a national state company for defense manufacture. The company, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), will produce not just arms but also armored vehicles, and will work to repair and maintain aircraft and manufacture unmanned air vehicles. Several major US companies are expected to announce contracts in energy and industrial sectors as well.
Beyond political negotiation and business deals, the bringing together of the Abrahamic faiths in dialogue and peace-making may perhaps be the best legacy of Trump’s first foreign tour as president.
Trump will convey the message of a fresh US leadership role in the Middle East aimed at combating extremist forces, addressing the roots of radical ideology and confronting what the US and Arab states see as Iran’s hegemonic designs. Trump will likely discuss with his Arab interlocutors the shaping of an inclusive defense coalition, possibly an “Arab NATO,” to address the region’s security concerns.
The Kingdom and its Gulf allies will seek from him more robust support in the battlefields of Syria and Yemen. They would like to see the US more actively involved in implementing the plan to set up “safe zones” in different parts of Syria, which had been proposed by the US itself but is now mainly being steered by Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Regarding Yemen, Trump has already conveyed greater US support to the Kingdom by agreeing to provide munitions, including armor-piercing Penetrator Warheads and Paveway laser-guided bombs, whose supply had been blocked by the Obama administration.
The one area where Arab leaders would be most anxious to see an active US role is in the revival of the Palestine-Israel peace process, which has been dormant for nearly 25 years. US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster described Trump’s foreign policy approach as “disruptive,” saying his unconventional ways could create an opportunity to help stabilize the Middle East. This approach might be useful in addressing the Palestine-Israel divide.
In his recent meeting with Palestine Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas, Trump assured him: “We will get it done.” Though most regional observers are skeptical, a few commentators believe the matter needs a fresh pair of eyes and Trump, with his unorthodox approach, might just pull off a deal.
From Riyadh, he will travel to Israel where he will go to the Western Wall in old Jerusalem, and to Bethlehem in Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. He will then meet the pope at the Vatican. So on this trip, he will be engaging with the three monotheistic faiths. These engagements highlight the centrality of faith in promoting conflict, and suggest that faith could spread the messages of peace and tolerance that unite the three monotheistic religions.
Religion could thus promote understanding and camaraderie between the divided peoples of the Middle East, instead of hatred and violence. Beyond political negotiation and business deals, this bringing together of the Abrahamic faiths in dialogue and peace-making may perhaps be the best legacy of Trump’s first foreign tour as president.
• Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.