Analysis

Trump's New Alliance With Arab States Is Old News

In his speech to Arab world, Trump seemed to understand that anti-Islamic rhetoric he cultivated cannot continue, but from Israel to ISIS, more questions than answers remain

President Donald Trump listens during a ceremony to mark the opening of the Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh.
Evan Vucci/AP

The stick that Donald Trump wielded during his speech to leaders of the Islamic world might have been wrapped in cotton candy, but it was sharp and clear: a war against Islamic terror, a fight against extremist rhetoric and the isolation of Iran. But there was no word about Russia, which contributed to the great tragedy the president was crying about. Nor was there any mention of the attack on the Twin Towers, which was carried out mostly by Saudis. And there was no news about the peace process or about the American initiative to get it moving.

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Looking forward to Saudi military acquisitions in the United States that are worth hundreds of billions of dollars, along with additional Saudi investment in the country, Trump can be satisfied with his first state visit.

It is not for nothing that Trump made a point of recalling the historic ties between the Saudi kingdom that gave American companies the concession to its oil fields and the decades-long cooperation that has gone on since then — cooperation that relies on the money-for-security formula.

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However, this big money won’t help millions of youths in the Middle East looking for decent jobs, not even those in Saudi Arabia. When Trump talks about draining the terror swamps, he does not offer solutions that include education, building factories or bolstering democracy, the lack of which drove thousands of youths to join Islamist terror organizations.

Trump makes it clear that he does not intend to lecture the leaders of the Arab world on how to run their affairs or to dictate a way of life. Anyone who had hoped to hear at least one encouraging word from him about liberal movements, a hint about human rights of the downtrodden or the need to strengthen democracy, was disappointed. Trump sounded like an education officer who came to recruit soldiers for the fight against terror — this, after investing all his efforts at the start of his term to demonstrating his hatred of and rage toward the “Muslim world.”

The Muslims were the first to suffer from his security policy when he sought to ban the entry of citizens of seven Muslim countries into American territory, and to prevent the absorption of Syrian refugees. “The new alliance,” or more accurately the renewed alliance, which Trump offered to the “Muslim world” cannot be very convincing. On the plus side, if one is duly cautious, Trump seemed to understand in this appearance that the anti-Islamic rhetoric he has cultivated since the electoral campaign cannot continue. If there is a sign of a deeper understanding of the problems in the region, that is to his credit. On the other hand, the declaration of the opening of a center for combatting religious extremism doesn’t bring much new to the table, as many such centers are already in operation, most of them in Arab countries as well as in London.

Some of the Arab leaders crafted the strategic coordination for the war on terror in private talks held with Trump before he arrived in Riyadh and in the course of his visit. It is impossible to expect that this coordination will be mentioned in detail in a state speech. But anyone who expects more than foolish phrases from the American president, for some hint of what his policy in Syria will be, for any response to the results of the Iranian election, for the way he sees the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — got only a bunch of hot air.

Kurdish soldiers near the northeastern city of Qamishli, Syria, 2013.
AP

Arab leaders have already heard the kind of didactic declarations that Trump made, going back to George Bush, who sought to export Western democracy with his “Greater Middle East Initiative,” which he created after the second Gulf War. Bush at least enjoyed a stable administration compared to that of Trump, which makes leaders in Saudi Arabia wonder whether he will even make it to the end of his term. The irony is that precisely in a kingdom where the days of the ill king are secretly being counted, they are examining the life expectancy of the administration of the leader of the Western world.

The main issue for Arab leaders, especially Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, is to isolate Trump from Iran. This is in the wake of the disappointment they felt about Obama’s policy, which was perceived as pro-Iranian at the expense of their traditional partnership. It seems that the Saudis succeeded. Trump, who put under one umbrella Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic State and Iran, did not stray from the consensus descriptions of all these. The question is how he will react when it is explained to him that there is no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without Hamas. Will he continue to assist the Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah representatives sit, and how does he see the future of Syria and Iraq after getting rid of ISIS? Nothing is known about an American plan for any of these issues, only about American disengagement from the region’s bloodletting conflicts.

Moreover, the ambition to establish “a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism,” as Trump described the American effort in his speech is not new and exciting. Saudi Arabia established an Arab and Sunni Muslim coalition two years ago that didn’t deliver impressive results in the war against terror. It is busier with the war in Yemen than it is against ISIS. Right now the real partners in the war against ISIS terror are Turkey, Iraq and the Kurds, who have almost no military cooperation with the Gulf states. It is also unclear what will be new about the coalition that Trump strives to form. Will it replace the current coalition? However, declarations come with no price tag.

Now we have to patiently wait until Tuesday to know if there is any substance to the Wall Street Journal report, according to which Trump has an integrated plan by which Israel will freeze settlements in exchange for partial normalization with Arab states — or whether that is just a trial balloon.

A timetable of Trump's visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority