By Aijaz Zaka Syed
May 30, 2017
Diplomacy has not been arguably the strongest point of the Middle East’s engagement with the world. This is why persuading President Donald Trump to begin his first foreign visit from Saudi Arabia is nothing short of a diplomatic coup. It is even more significant considering the ill-starred Arab-US relations under Obama and Trump’s own rabblerousing rhetoric which culminated in the ‘Muslim ban’.
Overcoming this formidable challenge to reach out to the new president and quickly establishing a rapport with him, to restore the equilibrium of close Saudi-US relations is not a small feat.
Historically, the US-Arab relations have been underpinned by commerce and security. The West provided security in a volatile region in return for oil or energy security. It had been a simple give-and-take relationship and did not involve the complex jugglery and nuances of international relations. Nonetheless, it remained robust and stood the test of time, including the uncertainties of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Obama ostensibly turned his back on this historic relationship, in the eyes of the Arabs, when he reached out to the ayatollahs of Iran. Indeed, by moving away from the Arabs and warming up to their traditional rivals across the Gulf, Obama seemed to shift the whole strategic paradigm of Arab-US relations. The nuclear deal with Iran had been just one part of the new realignment. The US rapprochement with Iran outraged the Israeli lobby as well as Washington’s traditional Arab allies.
So despite the fact that Obama had initially been widely welcomed across the Islamic world as the son of an African Muslim and as someone who promised a fresh start with the Islamic world, the departure of America’s first black president was greeted by a loud sigh of relief across the region.
It’s not just on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program that Obama had angered the Arabs; his studied indifference to the endless slaughter in Syria, which emboldened Bashar Assad and his allies — chiefly Iran — had been another major source of concern for the Arabs. Much of the carnage in Syria killing nearly a million people and displacing more than half of its population ironically happened on the watch of the Nobel Laureate president.
The rising Iranian influence across the region and what is seen as the “Iranian interference in Arab affairs,” has the Arabs, especially Gulf States, increasingly worried.
No wonder the Arabs have been so eager to welcome Obama’s successor, ignoring his rabblerousing rhetoric and other antics on the campaign trail.
As a Western analyst explained it, the Arab states have been quick to see that the new US leader is not a typical politician. Here is someone they can do business with — and perhaps even find solutions to the region’s vexing problems.
After all, traditional Western politicians with their political baggage and fealty to special interests have repeatedly failed the region. Unburdened by ideological and political commitments, Trump may succeed where others have failed. Which explains the extraordinarily warm reception that Trump received in Riyadh with King Salman himself welcoming him at the steps of Air Force One.
While the focus understandably has been on the massive $110 billion deal ($350 billion in total with investments and financial commitments thrown in) signed to buy ‘beautiful’ US weapons, in Trump’s words, there had been more to this extraordinary visit than big bucks and diplomatic optics.
By bringing together the leaders of more than 50 Muslim nations as part of the ‘Arab-Islamic-US’ summit, the Kingdom did not just instantly floor the US president, it presented the image of a united house.
Notwithstanding the repeated allusions to the big elephant in the room, it would be simplistic to dismiss it as a regional alliance against the pesky regional rival, with which the Arabs have been locked in a bitter conflict in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.
In that imposing convention center in Riyadh, there had been scores of leaders representing numerous Arab and Muslim countries, from Maghreb to Southeast Asia, who have had no issues with Iran or even a history of Shiite-Sunni conflict.
Indeed, beyond the immediate neighborhood, no Muslim country has had to fortunately deal with this sectarian monster. So looking at this whole thing from the prism of an Arab-Iran conflict is not just wrong, it may be counterproductive.
However, battling a serious credibility crisis back home so early in his presidency, it remains to be seen what Trump could do to help America’s friends and allies in the Middle East. Already calls are being made for his impeachment over his perceived links to Russia.
However, Trump’s visit and the Riyadh summit with Arab and Muslim leaders had been successful in that it has helped bring down tensions between the West and the Islamic world.
Given the fallout of the Muslim ban, which has been challenged in several courts and has dealt a serious blow to America’s image as a land of opportunity and religious freedom, this was badly needed.
The scenes of Trump’s sword dancing with his hosts and rubbing shoulders with Arab and Muslim leaders may, let’s hope, bring down some of the hate and hysteria roiling the land of the free.
The new US leader’s excessive proximity to Israel and his hugging, backslapping and in-your-face ‘bromance’ with Netanyahu is also a cause of concern. He is the first president to not just fly directly from Riyadh to Israel but also the first one to visit the Western wall, which is historically important to the Jews but remains at the heart of the occupied Jerusalem, sacred to both Muslims and Christians.
He has of course sought to balance it with a visit to Bethlehem and surprisingly respectful meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. There have been the regulation paeans to peace with promises to end the century-old conflict in the Holy Land. Of course, he is not the first US leader to dream of Middle East peace. But given his unusual background and the confidence he seems to enjoy on both sides of the divide, he could perhaps go where others have feared to tread.
After his 28-hour long stay in Jerusalem, Trump announced that the Palestinians and Israelis are ready for peace: “Making peace, however, will not be easy. We all know that. Both sides will face tough decisions. But with determination, compromise, and the belief that peace is possible, Israelis and Palestinians can make a deal.”
Trump has spoken frequently in the months since taking office of his desire to achieve what he has dubbed the “ultimate deal.” He has however not fleshed out any details or strategy that he might have up his sleeve toward achieving it.
There is therefore a tiny ray of hope. Perhaps, given his inexperience, this US president may after all be tempted to take greater risks and break new ground for peace. So can Trump trump history to make a new beginning. We will have to wait and watch. Hope springs eternal.
— Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist. Email: Aijaz.firstname.lastname@example.org