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The Riyadh summits: A workshop for a global front against terrorism

Donald Trump’s presidency is undergoing its most difficult stage yet at home. He is being chased by accusations of obstructing federal investigations into suspicious ties to Russia, and of being unfit to lead. Meanwhile, powerful entities are preparing to take action to impeach him for allegedly undermining national security and obstructing justice. His presidency is littered with gaping wounds that threaten his fate and reflect popular anger.

In terms of his foreign relations, Trump finds himself the target of a rescue operation through the summits in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has mobilized Arab and Muslim leaders to demonstrate a practical and tangible will to launch a partnership that would place Muslims on the frontline of a new, US-led global alliance against radical Islamic terror.

This is Trump’s first foreign trip as president. Every stop — Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican — has been meticulously prepared, beginning with Riyadh. There, three summits will convene: US-Saudi, US-Gulf and US-Arab-Islamic. They will not be symbolic feasts and festivals.

They are panels working on a new global front against terror inaugurated by Trump, just like President Harry Truman inaugurated a global front against communism in 1948. If the summits produce practical pledges beyond financial help and political statements, Saudi Arabia could become the foreign savior of Trump from his domestic woes.

If he is met with Arab and Islamic openness to an equation that would practically amend the Arab Peace Initiative on Israel and Palestine, the next stop of his tour could help further extricate him from the dangerous spiral threatening his presidency because of alleged ties to Russia.

Interestingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin has entered the fray, especially after allegations emerged that Trump had shared classified information with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting in Washington last week. Putin attacked certain US “circles” for their “political schizophrenia.”

Those making such claims “either don’t understand that they are harming their own country, which means they are just dumb, or they understand everything and then they are dangerous and unscrupulous people,” he said, adding that they intend to incite “anti-Russian sentiment” and destabilize US politics.

Putin is right to worry about growing US suspicions of Russia, which has been accused from the start of meddling in the US elections in favor of Trump, then of infiltrating his campaigns via close associates such as Michael Flynn, Trump’s initial national security adviser before he had to fire him when it emerged he had lied as he was being investigated by the FBI.

The issue has to do with national security, a sacrosanct matter for Americans. The message from Washington to the Kremlin, both from the media and the establishment, is that Russia will continue to be seen as an adversary as long as it interferes in US politics.

More importantly, there is a message to Trump that the intelligence community and the media will not remain silent in the face of violations and blunders that threaten the checks and balances of the US system, which gives these institutions the right to inquire and pursue accountability.

Trump’s sacking of FBI Director James Comey further stoked suspicions and outrage, especially after Comey claimed Trump had asked him to end the investigation into Flynn’s ties to Russia, the New York Times reported. The implication was that Comey’s sacking was the result of his opposition to the request. The FBI is supposed to be above politics and party lines, and its independence must be respected by the president and Congress.

Trump the president has made a distinguished move toward the Islamic world, differentiating between moderate Islam and fundamentalist terrorism, and building a coalition with Muslims to fight this terror.

Raghida Dergham

Reacting to the US Department of Justice’s appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel into the Russia investigation, Trump said: “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity.”

But those who believe otherwise have accused Trump of obstructing the investigation. Many are drawing attention to similarities between his visit to Saudi Arabia and a foreign tour by the late President Richard Nixon at the height of investigations that led to his impeachment, without his foreign policy feats being able to save him.

The leaders receiving Trump in Riyadh are well aware of this. But this has not affected their decision to invest in the president, who is bringing different policies than those of his predecessor Barack Obama, whose appeasement of Iran had driven a wedge between the US and its traditional allies.

Trump has made an about-face from his campaign attitudes on two levels: First, he has restored the US role, commitments and security guarantees at the heart of the Arab region via the Gulf gateway, especially Saudi Arabia, sending out reassurances that the US is no longer locked in embrace with Iran, as was the Gulf impression during Obama’s tenure.

Second, Trump the candidate had led a campaign against Muslims and Islam, which the Muslim world understood as a message of absolute and irreversible hostility. But now Trump the president has made a distinguished move toward the Islamic world, differentiating between moderate Islam and fundamentalist terrorism, and building a coalition with Muslims to fight this terror.

The Arab-Islamic-US Summit in Riyadh may develop mechanisms for this coalition to eliminate Daesh and similar groups in Syria and Iraq, especially in Raqqa and Mosul. But this coalition has broader goals because terrorism is bigger than Daesh.

Mechanisms for the coalition to confront Iran’s proxies in Arab countries is another important subject in the discussions in Riyadh, with the Trump administration resolved to head off Iran’s incursions in Arab countries, though not necessarily via direct military means.

At the level of the bilateral summit between King Salman and Trump, there are new, important rules to consider. Saudi Arabia is no longer a calm state, as one veteran Gulf figure said, but has become a pre-emptive power, taking the initiative and reshaping itself politically, economically, technologically and militarily in fulfilment of Vision 2030.

The summit has drawn leading business executives from both countries, who will meet in a separate event that the Saudi government has purposefully asked Lubna Al-Alian to co-chair to highlight its newfound openness to women at work. The summit will cement future economic interlinkage in a marriage of interests between the two countries’ private sectors, which could reflect positively on Trump and help him domestically.

Regarding the Gulf-US Summit, it is clear that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are proceeding on two tracks, especially in terms of security. First, there is a bilateral track such as UAE-US defense cooperation. Second, there is a collective track involving the six GCC countries and the US.

The positions of these countries sometimes conflict or compete. The UAE today is active in Libya, Yemen and Somalia, while Qatar is focusing on Sudan, Libya and Syria. Oman is interested in good relations with Iran, and for Saudi Arabia the priority is Yemen, followed by Syria and Sudan.

The tensions between Trump and important pillars of the US establishment are a concern for Gulf leaders, but this has not dissuaded them from betting on him. These countries have become accustomed to instability in relations with the US under successive administrations, and have decided nonetheless that there is no other choice but to invest in Trump.

It is unclear whether Muslim nations are willing to pay a hefty cost for the desired coalition, or whether they have the ability to participate in a pan-Islamic coalition to fight terror. In the other direction, can Trump not just survive but also convince US public opinion of the new global front he is mobilizing, which will also have a cost? 

King Salman, through determination to fight terrorism, has been able to forge important alliances, including with the US. This is something Obama could not do. The most important test for Trump is back home, but a lifeline is being given to him from abroad.

• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.