The world’s attention will be focused on Donald Trump’s speech “to the Arab World” in Riyadh on Sunday and his speech in Jerusalem on Tuesday. While those addresses — just like Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University in 2009 — may dominate headlines for a few hours, or even days, they will have little, if any, impact.
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Presidential speeches, no matter how well-written and choreographed, are the last thing that will ever budge anything in the Middle East, and more likely than not, need to be followed by diplomatic damage-control. That’s not to say of course that an American president cannot exercise huge influence in the region, through actions, such as Obama’s diplomatic push on Iran, or inaction – as in the case of Obama in Syria. And while Trump is the most non-presidential of presidents, he has already created a Middle East legacy, even before spending his first 24 hours in the region. It may turn out to be a toxic legacy, but it will be lasting.
The pomp and grandeur the Saudi monarchy accorded Trump upon his arrival in Riyadh on Saturday contrasts sharply with the rather back-handed way Obama was received on his fourth and last visit to the kingdom last year — he was greeted at the airport by the city’s governor and Air Force One’s landing wasn’t even broadcast live on Saudi TV. The Saudis know how to treat a guest they want to woo and Trump got the full treatment, literally in fistfuls of gold.
With Trump’s decision to make Saudi Arabia the first stop on his inaugural presidential trip abroad, the House of Saud is keenly aware of the opportunity they have to cement the kind of strategic alliance they never enjoyed with Obama. Not that Obama didn’t try to engage the Saudis, and as previous presidents certainly did. But this time the Saudis are angling for something much bigger than ever before. They want, and for now seem to be receiving, official American recognition that they are the ones safeguarding Western interests in the region, particularly in the confrontation with Iran.
Obama tried to create a balance between the Sunni Arab monarchies and dictators and the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran. Other presidents spread their eggs in diverse baskets and for decades also maintained various levels of American troops on the ground. The Saudis are now holding out for American support of an “Arab NATO” and naturally for recognition as the leaders of such an alliance.
The massive $110 billion arms deal, along with other commercial deals potentially triple that size, signed by Trump on Saturday are not that huge, in comparison with Saudi spending accumulated over the years. But they have been presented and scheduled in such a way that they represent as Trump said “jobs, job, jobs.”
Even if Trump is impeached, forced to resign or just loses the next election in three and a half years, it will be incumbent on his predecessor to stick to the deals over the next decade, and of course continue turning a blind eye to the Saudi bombing of civlians in Yemen, the country’s abysmal human rights record at home and the funding of jihadists across the world.
U.S. officials say that the Saudis are getting serious about building its own security forces to undertake a more responsible role in the region. That remains to be seen. But whether or not they up their game, America is already invested.
This is not all necessarily bad. After the Obama administration’s dithering and lack of motivation to confront Iran, particularly over its support and enabling of Syria’s mass-murdering Assad regime, Trump’s budding alliance with the Saudis could signal a more forceful American policy on Syria.
Some Israeli intelligence officials have pointed out in recent weeks that there has been no follow-up to the American Tomahawk missile attack early last month, following the chemical attack in the Syrian town of Khan Shaikhoun. But while there has been much talk in Riyadh on standing up to Iran’s “malign” influence, there doesn’t seem to be any concrete plans in confronting Tehran where it now matters most.
Another implication of the Trump pivot to Saudi Arabia is a potential opening up of the behind the scenes relationship between Riyadh and Jerusalem. At his joint press conference with State Secretary Rex Tillerson, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir spoke of how Trump will be continuing to Israel to “talk to the Jewish people,” a rare public reference.
Reports last week of a possible proposal by the Saudis and other Sunni Gulf states to establish various commercial ties with Israel in return for some Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, would be an important acknowledgement of what are still secret ties.
On the other hand, it would also mean that the Saudis are accepting that the Arab Peace Initiative, which proposed full diplomatic relations with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, is nowhere near fruition. In effect, this would mean that the main Arab states accept that the two-state solution isn’t happening anytime soon and have officially downgraded the Palestinian issue to a much lower spot on their agenda.
This will be welcome news for Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, but it could push the Palestinian leadership and public back toward a campaign of violence.
Trump’s embrace of the Saudis will also have to be balanced with some form of engagement with its main rival for leadership in the Arab world, Egypt. So far Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has had a good rapport with Trump, but it is a relationship that needs maintenance.
The Trump tour has deflected attention from other major events in the region this week. In Iran, a bitter presidential election is over, with relative moderate Hassan Rohani re-elected but the hardliners around the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, determined to show they still call the shots in the Islamic Republic. They will be watching events across the Persian Gulf and planning to challenge the Saudis very soon.
Trump’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority is coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and an uptick in violence in the West Bank. Many Palestinians are not happy with President Mahmoud Abbas’ planned warm reception for Trump in Bethlehem and may want to remind the world of their existence.
Trump will talk of the peace deal he believes only he can bring, but he is unlikely to have the patience or the political capital to tackle the conflict seriously. It’s more likely to be a case of presidential inaction.
Chances are this will be Trump’s first and last visit to the Middle East. The investigation and hearings underway into the Russian involvement in his presidential campaign may soon suck his administration downward in an inexorable death spiral. But even if Trump never returns, for better or worse he has already established a Middle East legacy of sorts.