In a historic gesture, President Donald Trump has announced that Saudi Arabia will be the first foreign country he will visit as president when he begins his tour to West Asia and the Vatican on 19 May. He will thus become the first US president to make his inaugural foreign tour to an Arab or Muslim country.
Official sources have said that the administration picked Saudi Arabia as the first stop on the tour in a bid to counter the widespread impression that the president is Islamophobic, given that he spent the campaign promising a ban on Muslims’ entry into the US and then twice tried to implement a version of the ban through administrative order, though he was thwarted by courts that blocked both efforts.
In Riyadh, besides the bilateral summit with King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Trump will be meeting with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as well as selected members of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, minus Iran and Syria.
The Trump visit to the Kingdom will be underscoring both the success of the Saudi outreach to the new administration, and the determination of the president himself to recommit to the Saudi-led regional alliance that he believes is providing stability in a region facing turmoil and terror. An Arab daily has said that the talks with GCC leaders will focus on “confronting the antagonistic behaviour of Iran in the region”.
Commentator Ali Shihabi sees this visit as a solid US commitment to defending the Gulf monarchies from Iran, ISIS and al-Qaeda that are making a determined effort to bring down the monarchies that “constitute the front line in the battle against terrorism.”
The ground for the anti-Iran alliance has already been put into place by Trump’s senior officials who visited the region recently. Thus, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis declared in Riyadh that the “United States wants to see a strong Saudi Arabia,” and added that “there is disorder wherever Iran is present.”
Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear US’s attitude towards Iran, when he said: “Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining US interests . . . A comprehensive Iran policy requires that we address all of the threats posed by Iran, and it is clear there are many.”
In the run-up to the Trump visit, contracts worth tens of billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia are in the pipeline, some of whom are new. Items under discussion include the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system with several batteries, valued at about $1 billion, and a C2BMC software system for battle command and control and communications.
Other items being negotiated are combat vehicles and a $11.5 billion package of four multi-mission surface combatant ships and accompanying services and spares. Also under discussion are more than $1 billion worth of munitions including armour-piercing Penetrator Warheads and Paveway laser-guided bombs, whose sale the Obama administration had suspended on humanitarian grounds.
These defense deals will certainly sweeten the run up to the visit to Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia is keen to obtain US support in Yemen and has so far been able to persuade Trump and his senior officials that this is one more area in West Asia where Iran is seeking to expand its influence.
Here the kingdom has come up against bipartisan Congressional opposition. In early May, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers urged Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to reconsider his support for a seemingly imminent assault by a Saudi-led coalition on the crucial Yemeni port city of Hudaydah.
Across West Asia there is widespread hope that Trump will be able to move the Israel-Palestinian peace process forward. In his recent meeting with Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, Trump had assured the latter by saying: “We will get it done.”
Though most regional observers are skeptical, mainly because of near-total absence of interest on the part of Israel’s politicians to make any concessions to move the process forward, commentators believe that Trump, with his unorthodox approach, might just pull off a deal.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster described Trump’s foreign policy approach as “disruptive,” saying his unconventional ways could create an opportunity to help stabilize West Asia. We will know soon enough.
Talmiz Ahmad is the former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.