Trump Speaks With Saudi, U.A.E. Leaders Amid Muslim Ban Backlash

Trump, Saudi King Salman agree on the importance of enforcing the Iran nuclear deal, suggesting a departure from the U.S. president's previous promise to scrap the agreement.

U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up to reporters as he waits to speak by phone with the Saudi Arabia's King Salman in the Oval Office, January 29, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

WASHINGTON D.C. - U.S. President Donald Trump spoke by telephone on Sunday with the leaders of two Gulf states – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The calls took place amid backlash over Trump's executive order banning the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Statements issued by the White House following Trump's conversations with the two Muslim leaders didn't mention the executive order.

According to the White House, Trump's conversation with Saudi King Salman focused primarily on the situation in Syria and Yemen. Trump and the Saudi King agreed to work together toward creating "safe zones" for refugees in Syria and Yemen, an idea that Trump has been floating ever since the early stages of his election campaign. It has been met with opposition from the Pentagon when suggested by the Obama administration in the past. 

The two leaders also agreed "on the importance of rigorously enforcing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran," meaning that both Trump and Salman prefer, at least according to what they told each other, to keep the Iran nuclear deal in place for now, and to focus on "policing" Iran and making sure that it complies with its commitments under the agreement. In the past, Trump has promised to scrap the Iran deal upon entering office, as have some of his senior aides and cabinet picks. The conversation with the Saudi king seems to suggest a more nuanced approach by the president.  

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The White House statement said that Trump and Salman also discussed the importance of "addressing Iran's destabilizing regional activities." This phrasing should probably generate cautious optimism in Riyadh, after eight years of complaints by the Saudi regime over president Obama's handling of Iran's growing influence across the Middle East. As Haaretz reported last week, Trump's new senior Middle East director at the National Security Council, Colonel (ret.) Derek Harvey, is a strong critic of Iran, and has called for strengthening the U.S.-Saudi relationship in order to combat Iran's activities in the region. 
 
Finally, the statement said that the two leaders "discussed an invitation from the King for President Trump to lead a Middle East effort to defeat terrorism and to help build a new future." The exact meaning of this invitation was not made clear in the statement. 

Shortly after his conversation with the Saudi king, Trump spoke with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The summary of their conversation, as provided by the White House, was more general, and contained only one specific detail: "The President also raised the idea of supporting safe zones for the refugees displaced by the conflict in the region, and the crown prince agreed to support this initiative." 

Bloomberg News reported on Saturday the new president and his family's companies have substantial business interests in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., both Muslim-majority countries that were not included in Trump's travel ban executive order. The news agency mentioned in its report that companies listed under Trump's FEC filing were involved in real estate projects in Saudi Arabia, and that the Trump Organization has a licensing and management deal for a golf course and luxury villas in Dubai, which is part of the U.A.E. Trump said at a press conference in New York days before assuming the presidency that he was recently turned down an offer by a businessman from Dubai to get involved in a real estate deal worth $2 billion.