By Kabir Taneja
President Donald Trump this past week initiated his debut foreign trip as the most powerful man in the world, making Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine the first stops of his travels, before continuing to Brussels for a NATO summit, Sicily, Italy for the G7 conclave and a stopover in The Vatican for an audience with the pope.
Despite Washington DC and the Trump administration engulfed in many political fires, the presidential visit to the Middle East displayed the continuing criticality of the region in American foreign policy. With Russia now playing a much heavier hand in the region, the US under Trump continues to come off as aloof as far as long-term policy thinking is concerned. On landing in Riyadh, Trump and his accompanying team of top officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster, were greeted with pomp and applause, massaging the president’s ego with giant billboards across the town and his picture being projected on the giant façade of the glitzy Ritz Carlton hotel. “He (Trump) likes bling, that’s what he will get in Saudi Arabia,” a commentator said on a television news channel.
Trump has already hosted two of the three leaders he in Washington DC, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, president of Palestine, before making this trip, which was designed more on religious bridge building than political policy. Nonetheless, Trump’s visit had undertones of a potential plan to push for a scalable blueprint to bring one of the longest and most scarring conflicts in the region between Israel and Palestine. But the only viable policy tilt that was only covertly visible was Trump’s attempts to push Riyadh and Jerusalem to mend ties till a level where the Saudis could at some point have a strong card to play in a potential final settlement on the issue.
However, the president’s ideas on all-encompassing peace in the Middle East were overshadowed by the fact that he came bearing arms. Riyadh and Washington committed to over $100 billion in defense deals, strongly signaling that the US views the Saudis as the central orb of their regional Islamic diplomacy, as heads of state from a dozen other Muslim countries also attended in support for what is being termed as the ‘Arab NATO’ (also being termed as the ‘Sunni NATO’ by some). During his speech, Trump did not take much of a leaf from a talk given by former president Barack Obama on Muslim – US relations in Cairo, Egypt, in 2009. While Obama pointed his talk towards the people of the region, on fighting extremism and preserving human rights, Trump took his speech more towards addressing the governments instead. “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive. Them. Out. Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land and drive them out of this Earth,” he said addressing the Arab leadership and visiting heads of state, which included Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, and Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, in an emboldened and rumbustious tone. Throughout his trip, there were no mentions of the across-the-board allegations against Saudi Arabia for spreading Wahabbi terrorism and having a poor record in upholding human rights. In fact, the topic of human rights itself, as a point of contention, seems to have been shelved from the Trump administration’s vocabulary.
Attempting to make Saudi Arabia the gravitational point of the Middle East, Trump also took aim at Iran, blaming the state for sponsoring terrorism and destabilising the region. On the face of it, such overtures come off as Washington looking to increase the ever-present Shia–Sunni divide in the Middle East. Trump may have made his peace with the fact that the P5+1 and Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), one he threatened to ‘rip up’ during campaign speeches is not going anywhere, and may now target Iran in other ways. Tehran orchestrated a stinging reply to the Saudi led show of power, which Riyadh called a ‘turning point’ in US – Saudi ties. While Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who recently won his second term on back of his reformist agenda (only to hear Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal compare his democratic win to Hitler’s rise), called the Saudi conclave as a ‘mere show’, Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, advised Trump to discuss how to avoid another 9/11 with the Saudis.
Trump’s second leg of the trip to Israel, including stops at Jerusalem to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu and Ramallah in West Bank to meet President Mahmoud, was where many analysts were hoping for concrete policy offerings by the administration on what they hope to achieve. Here, Trump became the first sitting American president to visit the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. The president’s Israel policy, known to be heavily influenced by his Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and his chief strategist Steve Bannon, had to make a balance. Despite reports of Trump not wanting to visit Ramallah, he did, possibly on pressure from the State Department and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The problems of the Trump visit are not immediate, with much of his engagements being pleasantries, military deals and a more public beckoning of a new developing anti-Iran stance at the White House. However, the fact that such pacification of the House of Saud can lead to long term and long-standing sectarian divides, political vacuums where entities such as ISIS strive, was dangerously underplayed by the Trump administration. The US, observing both Israel and Saudi Arabia converge their interests against all odds to stand against the Iran nuclear deal now may be seeing this as an opportunity to what many in Riyadh and Jerusalem believe is Tehran’s imperialist policies, using tools such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), Hezbollah and other Shiite militias in Iraq. While Riyadh is worried over an imposing Shiite influence of Iran on their doorstop in Iraq, the Israelis are worried over Iranian militias and Hezbollah’s influence on its borders with Syria. Recent skirmishes in southern Syria have seen increased US bombings directly targeting Iranian backed groups rather than ISIS or the likes of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (erstwhile Al Nusra Front) who are known to be associated with Al Qaeda. In some instances, indirectly, the US and Iran are now militarily engaging each other under the shade of the Syrian civil war.
The above optics that I have illustrated do not even begin to chalk out the political complexities currently being played out in the region. However, any lopsided moves against Iran such as return of across-the-board sanctions, or political and military strong-arming Tehran could lead to the Ayatollah and his conservative supporters to double down on the country’s reformist narrative. Such an event could undo years of work by the US and European allies to strengthen the presidential role in the country via economic upliftment, and handing over even more powers to the likes of the IRGC for controlling the state’s political and economic narratives.
Meanwhile, for India, which maintains good ties with Riyadh, Jerusalem and Tehran, preservation of stability is critical while maintaining a global narrative against terrorism and continuation of pressure against Pakistan’s state sponsored terrorism in South Asia. The fact that Trump did not meet Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines in Riyadh, despite being the only nuclear-armed Muslim nation, has two views of interest for India. First, that Washington could take a tough stance against Islamabad, with reports suggesting of significant funding cuts to be announced for Pakistan’s logistical help in the war against terror, but only on its borders with Afghanistan. Second, of course, that the Trump administration does not have a take on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism against India, as the White House continues to priorities fighting its own potentially existential political battles at home. On the other hand, the Pentagon, which continues to drive the narrative of Pakistan’s critical importance to the war on terror while ignoring its support of the same against India, now has a president that is much more available to its style of working. Under the Obama administration, the US military, according to multiple accounts, had a hard time selling anti-terror military operations to the White House. This now may change, making it harder for India to deal with the US over Pakistan.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi looking to visit Washington for his first meeting with Trump in late June, along with the usual scroll of issues, stability in the Middle East should also be a prioritised discussion. With 8 million Indians working and living in the region, $50 billion of remittances at stake and volatile countries such as Iraq now becoming India’s largest supplier of oil, New Delhi has more stakes to consider in the Middle East than visible from its current foreign policy priorities.