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The search for a new regional order

The Arab Gulf countries searching for their ally, their ally in search of itself, and everyone searching for a new regional order, is a way to define US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Many of the issues on the agenda are well-known, but there is a broader rationale to the occasion: The attempt to outline a US Middle East strategy — which has been non-existent for too long — and communicate it to its regional allies.

Coincidentally, it was 14 years ago this month that the George W. Bush administration declared, in a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, an end to major combat operations in Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the assumption that the occupation would be relatively quick, and the state would be returned to Iraqis largely intact, proved to be a major miscalculation, as a few leading Iraq experts had warned.

Gross mismanagement and the absence of a plan were crucial to the collapse of Iraqi state institutions, a prolonged conflict with an unprecedented sectarian dimension and the unraveling of the regional order. US policy toward the Middle East and its leading global role would enter an existential crisis that persists today, with major consequences such as the rise of Daesh and the triggering of Iranian expansionism.

Trump’s first foreign trip as president carries the hallmark of civilizational bridge-building. After Riyadh, he will travel to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, then Rome — three emblematic places for the world’s largest monotheist religions.

Apart from the meeting with Saudi King Salman and the summit with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Trump will also attend the Arab-Islamic-US Summit. In Riyadh, the president is expected to deliver a speech on Islam — probably a more direct, less eloquent version of his predecessor’s famous Cairo speech in 2009.

This approach comes across as an attempt to counter the Islamophobic image that some present and past members of his administration have cultivated, and for which Trump’s actions and words have greatly contributed.

Yet there is a more practical if overlapping priority: The war against Daesh, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, as well as the fight against the extremist ideologies on which they thrive. The role of religious leaders, religious tolerance, cooperation between faiths and US relations with the Muslim world will be among the issues addressed.

In the words of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, the speech “is intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization and to demonstrate America’s commitment to our Muslim partners.”

The Trump administration will likely shift to a more positive tone, focused on supporting Saudi implementation of Vision 2030 and exploring the opportunities this modernization drive can offer US businesses.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

Another threat that will feature high of the agenda is Iran’s hard-line and expansionist regional policy. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained ahead of the visit the need for “unity against Iran as opposed to any particular religious overtone.”

Some of the potentially contentious issues include a US push for Israeli-Palestinian peace, in which the devil will be in the details. Another is the argument that US allies, and Saudi Arabia in particular, need to pay more for American protection. Trump is expected to reiterate this in Riyadh.

While the GCC states are keen to deepen their trade and investment ties with the US, Trump may start to realize that pushing too hard on this matter might not make for great politics. Much of America’s edge in the world — under threat on various fronts — comes from GCC or NATO allies welcoming a dominant US role in exchange for vital security and defense arrangements.

The US may be moving toward energy self-reliance, but oil and gas is a deeply interdependent, global market crucial for the stability of the world economy. On this front, the Gulf will remain highly relevant for the foreseeable future.

The Trump administration will likely shift to a more positive tone, focused on supporting Saudi implementation of Vision 2030 and exploring the opportunities this modernization drive can offer US businesses.

Would clearer positions from the Trump administration on all these matters, plus on key issues such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, transform his vague “America First” approach into a new, much-needed US Middle East strategy? Perhaps, the most optimistic may think.

But even so, a good strategy needs to be articulated coherently and properly implemented. The constant controversies surrounding the current administration back home do not bode well for massive tasks such as fixing a heavy legacy in the region, defeating terrorism or countering Iran’s imperialist drive.

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a consultant and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.