Bridging the gulf: Trump to reassure Saudi allies, promote business, talk tough on radicalism in first foreign visit
Saudi Arabia is the first stop on Trump’s maiden international trip since taking office in January and both US and Saudi officials are eager to highlight the powerful symbolism of an American president choosing to visit the birthplace of Islam
When US President Donald Trump meets Saudi princes in Riyadh on Saturday, he can expect a warmer welcome than the one given a year ago to his predecessor Barack Obama, who Riyadh considered soft on arch-enemy Iran and cool towards a bilateral relationship that is a mainstay of the Middle East’s security balance.
Beneath the pomp, Riyadh will be looking for assurances that the Trump administration will continue its notably harsher tone towards Iran and keep up pressure, through both rhetoric and action, to stop what Saudi Arabia sees as Tehran’s destabilising activities in the region.
The US-Saudi alliance has experienced turbulence since Riyadh faulted what it saw as Obama’s withdrawal from the region, a perceived tilt towards Iran since the 2011 Arab uprisings and a lack of direct action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally.
Saudi Arabia will also want to showcase high-profile investment deals with American companies to show progress on its ambitious “Vision 2030” economic and social reform agenda, while Washington claims US arms sales worth tens of billions of dollars are in the pipeline.
Saudi Arabia is the first stop on Trump’s maiden international trip since taking office in January. US and Saudi officials are eager to highlight the powerful symbolism of an American president choosing to visit the birthplace of Islam as his first stop rather than to neighbours Canada or Mexico.
Besides meeting Saudi officials, Trump will also meet leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and have lunch with heads of state from more than 50 Muslim countries.
Critics have accused Trump of being anti-Muslim after he issued a ban, now blocked by US courts, on entry into the US by people from several majority-Muslim nations, citing security concerns.
US public opinion of Saudi Arabia has been at rock bottom since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, as 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. The US Congress last year passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a law permitting lawsuits holding Saudi Arabia responsible for the attacks. The Saudi government has long denied involvement.
“[Trump’s visit] sends a clear message that the US is standing with its close allies in the region and that they’re not abandoning them,” said a senior Saudi official, reflecting the view many Gulf leaders had of Obama, who they feel made securing a nuclear deal with Iran a higher priority than the US-Gulf alliance.
Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia in April 2016 was overshadowed by Gulf Arab exasperation with his approach to the region and doubts about Washington’s commitment to regional security.
“This [Trump] administration comes in and ... says: ‘No, wait a minute, Iran is active’,” the official said, referring to claims by Gulf states of Iran’s involvement through proxies in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.
The Trump administration has called the nuclear agreement with Iran “the worst deal ever negotiated”, and senior administration officials have repeatedly criticised Iran’s support for Assad, its missile activities and its support for militant groups in the region. Mustafa Alani of the Jeddah-based Gulf Research Centre think tank, said Gulf leaders would like to see “America classify Iranian-supported militias as terrorist groups”.
Saudi Arabia will also be looking for further US support in the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the loosely Iran-aligned Houthi group and troops loyal to former President
Ali Abdullah Saleh to restore the internationally recognised government to power.
The Obama administration backed Saudi Arabia when it launched air strikes in Yemen in March 2015 but grew sour as it saw the number of civilian deaths grow and curtailed some military support to Riyadh. In contrast, “we don’t get criticised about the war in Yemen” by the Trump administration, the senior Saudi official said.
In Trump’s meeting with GCC leaders, the discussion will revolve around how to strengthen the structure of the group, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to be more effective, a senior White House official said.
While Trump has criticised Saudi Arabia for not paying enough for US military support, he has been silent since becoming president about its hardline brand of Islam. Traditional Wahhabi doctrine is ultra-conservative, imposing a strict version of Islamic law and urging resumption of early Muslim practices. Homosexuality is illegal and can be punished by death.
Critics of the kingdom argue the government does not do enough to prevent the teachings of some of its ultra-conservative clergy from fanning militancy overseas as well as at home. Radicalisation of Muslims in the world’s top oil exporter has led to domestic attacks and the involvement of Saudis in extremist movements in Iraq and Syria.
The senior clergy have denounced militant Islamic doctrines, such as those of al-Qaeda or Islamic State, but still preach intolerant views.
An inaugural Saudi-US CEO forum will be held in Riyadh on Saturday in which several deals are expected to be signed in defence, electricity, oil and gas, industrial and chemical sectors.
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son, is the face of “Vision 2030” and is eager to showcase the kingdom’s success a year since its inception.
The CEO of state oil giant Saudi Aramco is expected to sign deals with top US companies to promote local manufacturing.
The White House official said the kingdom was in the final stage of negotiating a US$100 billion arms deal.
A New York Stock Exchange delegation is also expected to visit Saudi Arabia after Trump to try to lure a listing by Aramco, slated for 2018 and worth about US$100 billion. World stock exchanges are vying for slices of Aramco’s initial public offering, expected to be the largest in history, with Hong Kong currently the front runner among bourses in Asia, as China is a key importer of Saudi oil.
A Republican strategist close to the White House said Trump needed a strong trip to put a tumultuous past few weeks behind him. “If the White House is looking for this international trip to turn the page, then it really needs to come off well without any balls dropped or serious mistakes,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity. “This is their time to shine, to show Americans and the world that the White House isn’t becoming a circus of errors.”
However, some doubt whether Trump is ready for a smooth debut abroad, which also includes stops in Israel and Europe.
One Republican official, who requested anonymity, said after meeting Trump recently he did not think the president had a firm enough grasp on the nuances of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I don’t think he understands it,” said the official, adding that Trump needed more detailed briefings before leaving tomorrow. “I think it’s a difficult challenge and I hope he’s going to talk to a lot of smart people.”