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President Trump in Saudi Arabia: A sign of Pragmatism and Real Polity

Photo: Time Magazine

By Fazzur Rahman

Perhaps nothing could prove the old dictum – “Politics is an art of convenience” – truer than the choice of Saudi Arabia by Donald Trump as his fist overseas destination after he became the 45th President of US. It was not long ago when Mr. President spared no occasion to lambast the religion of Islam, the Islamic-Arab world, including Saudi Arabia and had no hitch in linking Islam to radical extremism. During his election campaign, he not only frequently invoked the phrase, ‘radical Islamic extremism’ but after coming to power, he took no time to shut the US doors for Muslims from seven Islamic nations.

He concluded his two-day high profile state visit (20-21 May, 2017) to Saudi Arabia on Sunday where he participated in three high-level Summits: Saudi Arabia-US Summit; GCC-US Summit, and Islamic Arab Leaders-US Summit. First, he was a given a red carpet welcome in Riyadh, the capital city of the bastion of Islam. Within an hour of touching down the city, King Salman bestowed on him the highest civilian honor of the Kingdom, King Abdul Aziz al Saud Collar, a privilege for Obama, Putin, and Theresa May in the past. What followed next was something historic, when Donald Trump and King Salman in bilateral Summit inked a $110 billion arms deal, the highest single deal in the history of their relationship. Other investment and trade deals were also signed taking the total to around $350 billion in next ten years in the field of infrastructures, communication technology, and other military hardware.

The giant deal promises to generate thousands of jobs for Saudis and offers a big opportunity for the US companies to invest in Saudi Arabia which would create employment opportunity for Americans, a major concern of President Donald, who has constantly argued that Americans have been usurped of their livelihood under his predecessor. The new deal is likely to concur with ‘Saudi Arabia Economic Vision 2030’ revealed by the deputy crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, last year. This vision is primarily intended to diversify the source of national revenue and to lessen the traditional reliant on oil sector.

Another major issue which dominated the bilateral Summit was the expansionist design of Iran in the Gulf region, a major and a prolonged source of paranoia for the GCC leaders in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. The success of Trump’s current visit to Saudi Arabia lies in a stern message to Iran that the US would be an indissoluble part of Gulf security architecture. The US Secretary of State, Mr. Tillerson, in a joint conference with his Saudi counterpart, stated that the focal point of Trump’s visit to the Gulf nation is to curb the threat of neighboring Iran. Nothing could have been more amusing for the Gulf regimes than the security and political commitment of the US towards the Gulf regimes. What could have pleased the ruler more than the statement of the head of the strongest nation on the planet, Mr. Trump, exhorting that Iran, a traditional ideological and political adversary of Saudi Arabia, is responsible for so much of instability in the region and that it is Iran which is spearheading terrorism?

President Trump held a comprehensive closed-door meeting with the heads of six GCC nations and discussed a series of bilateral and regional issues apart from the Gulf security system.  Growing Iranian ideological and security threat amidst the Arab turmoil dominated the meet. The Summit also witnessed the signing of MoU to open a counter-terrorism centre in Riyadh.

Perhaps the most important engagement of President Trump in his last day of the tour was to participate in the Arab Islamic-American Summit. The summit was attended by fifty five heads of states and governments from Afro-Asian region. His address to the global political and religious figures was a true reminder of President Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world in 2009. His preference for pragmatism over rhetoric and selection of polity over advocacy was solely reflected when he evaded his past rhetoric of Islamic radicalism and extremism and consciously strode the path of diplomacy and termed hitherto called ‘global war against terrorism’ a battle between good and evil. He said that he was not here to lecture on Islam but promised all cooperation against the war unleashed by the ISIS and other terror outfits. He was a different Donald Trump when he himself claimed that it is not a battle between faiths or sects or civilizations but a battle against barbaric criminals.

It will be too early to read or asses the outcome of Trump’s visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But no doubt it has left an initial imprint on the US-Saudi Arabia ties and the US-Gulf relationship. By landing first in Saudi Arabia, the US administration has recognized the centrality of Saudi Arabia among the Arab-Islamic world which is vexing Iran for decades.

President Trump’s address to the Arab-Islamic leaders and inauguration of a counter-terrorism centre in Riyadh is an open declaration on the part of new US administration that Saudi Arabia, like Pakistan, would be a long term partner in its war against terror. Moreover, all those global rhetoric of Wahabism and Saudi’s role in promotion of puritanical Islamic ideology would not deter the US from forging close strategic and economic ties with the kingdom. In addition, Saudi Arabia does not need the US merely for its security requirement and as a bulwark against Iran but it equally needs the assistance of the US in diversification of its economic infrastructure and strengthening of its armed forces and upgrading its arsenal. Moreover, by telling the Arab-Islamic leaders that the Middle Eastern nations cannot always wait for the US to wage a war against terrorism, President Trump has made it clear that the Arab leaders would have to evolve their own strategy and the US would enjoy its own prerogative and pursue a selective approach if and when it has to intervene in the region. The first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia by President Trump has proved that economic, strategic, security, national interest, and real polity are likely to determine the contours of US policies in the region, far away from the religious and civilizational rhetoric of the past.

Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui is a fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a Delhi-based foreign policy think tank. His area of research is political Islam and socio-political development in the Arab world. Recently he has published a book, Political Islam and the Arab Uprising: Islamist Politics in Changing Time (Sage: 2017). He has also authored “The Concept of Islamic State: From the Time of Caliphate to Twentieth Century: Pre-Ikhwan and Post-Ikhwan Phase” (Lebanon). He writes regularly on political and regional issues in the Arab world.


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