An American president’s first overseas trip is considered significant because it suggests the trajectory a new administration will assume regarding its foreign policy priorities. If President Trump’s first destination of Saudi Arabia is any indication of that prospect, then many analysts will contend that he did not deviate from that script. Beyond the pageantry, warm exchanges and ear-to-ear grins by leaders from both sides, the Trump visit will be best assessed by the words spoken and perhaps, more importantly, those not uttered.
The US-Saudi relationship is nearly as old as the kingdom itself. Founded in 1932, American oil interests traveled to the new nation the following year and established the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company, better known today as ARAMCO. To fortify the critical importance of the bilateral engagement of the two countries, President Franklin Roosevelt made a secret trip to meet with the Saudi monarch and founder of the Kingdom, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud on February 14, 1945, mere weeks before FDR’s death. Roosevelt had just met with Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference to discuss the impending conclusion of the European theater of World War II and felt compelled to meet his Saudi counterpart on the way home.
The two leaders met aboard a US naval vessel in the middle of the Suez Canal zone to discuss the oil agreements with ARAMCO. The meeting helped “seal the deal” by which the two countries have maintained an eight-decades-long alliance that involves energy security and regional geostrategic coordination.
The tight US-Saudi relationship experienced a shudder in 2011 when the royal family felt betrayed by then President Obama for his reticence during the Arab Spring in Egypt. When the US failed to intervene to save Hosni Mubarak from being deposed, the Saudis perceived this act as a betrayal of a stalwart, loyal ally. If Riyadh contended, the US was willing to abandon a ruler of three decades for the sake of potential democratization. A similar fate could visit Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies in the whirlwind of political change sweeping the region.
As a result, the Saudis welcomed the Trump election victory, given the President’s stated fondness for authoritarian regimes in lieu of democracies for US foreign policy priorities. Their jubilation was on full display as they welcomed Trump to the country.
President Trump’s entourage to Saudi Arabia included more than his family, advisors, and security detail. 50 CEOs of American companies accompanied him to Riyadh to negotiate trade deals. By all measures, it was a highly successful, lucrative trip for them as a total package of $350 billion was affirmed. Part of this, of course, was the $110 billion arms sale to the kingdom. As a side gesture of appreciation for the new American president, the Saudis also pledged $100 million to the “first daughter” Ivanka Trump’s foundation.
While the arms and trade deals were certainly a high priority for the Trump administration in Saudi Arabia, perhaps the more highly anticipated item on the president’s itinerary was his “Islam speech” to a gathering of leaders from majority Muslim countries. The remarks followed the opening welcome of the host, King Salman, who spoke in great length of the alleged threat to the region and global stability posed by Iran. Trump maintained the monarch’s theme by singling out the Persian nation as the root cause of much of the conflicts across the Middle East and reiterating his promise that Iran would never acquire a nuclear weapon.
Absent was any acknowledgment of the P5+1 agreement, brokered by his predecessor, which effectively froze any such aspirations and programs from Tehran. Equally ignored was the fact that a day earlier, Iranians reelected President Hasan Rouhani, a decision seen by many as a repudiation of the hardline conservative segment of the country that had high hopes at seizing power at the ballot box. In fact, the topic of democracy was unsurprisingly off the agenda, given the inevitably allergic reaction to it from most of Trump’s audience, including his hosts, leaders from the Gulf States and Egypt’s General Abdel Fateh Sisi.
During his election campaign and even prior to his overseas trip President Trump had insisted that extremism committed by Muslims be called ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ and he chastised his predecessor and others for their unwillingness to call it such. In Riyadh, Trump did not invoke this rather toxic language, certainly a positive development to be recognized.
There was another glaring omission from his remarks, one that has to be seen as woefully neglectful if not intentional. Speaking to no fewer than 50 Muslim leaders, Trump made no mention of the multi-million strong American Muslim population, their history in the US that predates the country’s independence and their considerable contributions to American society. As a representative of the American people, it was regrettable and demoralizing for American Muslims that they were not considered worthy of representation at a venue where they, not the president, would be the principal bridge and common denominator.
With his Riyadh speech, President Trump crossed the Rubicon by seemingly committing the US to one side of a hyper-sectarian narrative regarding the global Muslim community. Before 1979 and the Iranian Revolution, the US maintained equally close relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Over the past 38 years, that balance has been non-existent, but not for sectarian reasons. Even in light of the current conflicts over Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, American foreign policy has always been framed in geostrategic terms.
Trump’s speech is a marked departure from prior policy and unnecessarily so. While the Middle East today is embroiled in a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the conflict is not a sectarian one, per se, despite it being forced into that language. It is about efforts to dominate and monopolize the Persian Gulf-based upon cultural and economic matters. The Riyadh speech was a perfect platform of the American president to help frame and reset the conflict to more accurate and workable terms. It was perhaps the greatest missed opportunity and consequently, a failure of leadership.