Before he became US President and even after assuming office, Donald Trump has taken very hard stances against Islamic radicalization and Islamic states/people. He even tried to impose a ban on people visiting from seven Islamic nations.
However, for his first overseas visit, Trump not only chose an Islamic country, Saudi Arabia, he even attended an America-Arab Islamic Summit in which 55 countries from the Arabic world participated. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, which he used to hold responsible for 9/11, was applauded during his visit while Iran was held up as a destabilizer and terrorist state. These stances during the America-Arab Islamic Summit are likely to further divide the West Asian region into sectarian groups.
Making Saudi Arabia and Israel his first ports of call, Trump has indicated a continuity of ‘special relationships.’ These special bonds include energy geopolitics, strategic alliances, arms sales and, of course, hostility and cordiality with Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively.
Are geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic motivations responsible for this U-turn? For Saudi Arabia, which Trump used to slam for human rights violations, enslavement of women and support to Sunni Jihadists, how did they receive Trump with such royal honour?
Notwithstanding this tough rhetoric from Trump, given the vested interests of both Saudi Arabia and the US, bilateral relations have been improving since Trump took office. Saudi monarch Salman had sent his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also defence minister, to engage Trump in March 2017. King Salman not only engaged the US, he fully supported Trump’s Middle East policy, including launching missile strikes on a Syrian military base.
Trump’s inaugural address to the Arab Islamic America Summit (May 22, 2017) was placatory and tried to conciliate the Islamic world, urging the leadership of 55 countries to unite with the US to combat terrorism and radicalization.
In the context of terrorism Trump said, “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people of all religions who try to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.” Trump and King Salman indicated their commitment to root out ISIS, Al Qaeda, and several other terrorist organizations. Trump softened his rhetoric on Islamic radicalization by acknowledging that Islam itself was not the enemy. It was the first time he delinked terrorism from a particular religion which he always used to castigate.
The US President and the Saudi King agreed on a strategic partnership for the 21st century and issued a Joint Strategic Vision statement charting a new path towards peace in the Middle East. Both countries committed to heighten the regional and global cooperation focussing on the trade, economic development, and diplomacy. Apart from economic diplomacy, the strategic partnership has emerged as the lynchpin of the bilateral as well as the regional cooperation.
In pursuance of the strategic partnership, an arms deal of US $ 110 billion has been signed between Trump and the Saudi King, probably the most significant deal in recent history. Trump agreed to provide tanks, combat ships, radar, missile defence systems, communications and cyber-security technology to Riyadh. Many reports called it a “significant” and “historic” expansion of US relations with Saudi Arabia. The arms deal in general and new strategic partnership, in particular, have been presumed as a counterbalance and check to the expanding influence of Iran and Russia in the region.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been entwined in the Middle East’s proxy war for regional influence, divergence in oil export policy, and sectarian divisions. Both countries have been providing moral, financial and strategic support to the opposite sides in conflicts and the civil wars not only in West Asia, like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen but also in Central Asia and Pakistan.
Trump asked all the participant 55 countries at the AIA to unite against Iran. Before Trump’s visit, Defence Secretary James Mattis had also visited Saudi Arabia on 19 April.
Trump had two main objectives for his Middle East visit; the first to check and reverse Iran’s nuclear programme which, even as a presidential candidate, he had slammed. The second part of his strategy was to build a coalition against Iran and its Shiite proxies with the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia, he indicated his strong support for Riyadh’s virulent anti-Iran stance and urged the Gulf States not only to normalize their relationship with Israel, but also to put pressure on Iran to conform.
Iran and Israel are pitted against each other in the present geopolitical milieu. Even in Israel, Trump did not forget to slam Iran.
In a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Trump said, “The United States and Israel can declare with one voice that Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon – never, ever – and must cease its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias, and it must cease immediately.”
In Tehran, meanwhile, President Hasan Rouhani also cautioned Trump, saying, “Who can say regional stability can be restored without Iran? Who can say the region will experience total stability without Iran?”
West Asia has been passing through a high degree of turbulence as it has been divided into Sunni and Shia groups. But with the visit of President Trump, the division between Iran on the one hand and Arab countries on the other hand widened further as he asked these countries to unite against the former.
Analysts wonder whether the $110 billion Saudi-US arms deal will not be as destabilizing for the region as Iran’s nuclear programme.
To maintain peace and stability, countries in West Asia and the Gulf will have to learn how to accommodate their neighbouring countries, despite existing divergences, and avoid the geopolitical intervention of major powers. Otherwise, such visits, selling of arms, exploitation of sectarian divisions, power play games, will keep these countries embroiled in a seemingly endless regional war.
*The author is teaching at the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]