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June 2, 2017



Can Trump trump history?

Can Trump trump history?

How do you go from banning Muslims to banqueting and dancing with Muslims? But then, in the ephemeral world of international relations, there are no permanent friends and foes, only permanent interests.

Diplomacy has never arguably been the strongest point of the Middle East’s engagement with the world. This is why persuading US President Donald Trump to begin his first foreign sojourn from Saudi Arabia is nothing short of a diplomatic coup. It is even more significant considering the ill-starred Arab-US relations under President Barack Obama and Trump’s endless incendiary rhetoric against Islam and Muslims that led to a travel ban on people from six Muslim nations. Overcoming this formidable challenge to reach out to the new president and quickly establishing a rapport with him and restore the once close Saudi-US relations is not a small feat.

Historically, US-Arab relations have been defined by commerce and security. The West provided security to the fragile Arab states 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 nuances of international relations. Nonetheless, it remained robust and has withstood the vagaries of time, including the uncertainties of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Obama seemingly turned his back on this pragmatic yet strong 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 shifted the whole strategic paradigm of the 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 notwithstanding 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 and represented a fresh start with the Islamic world, the departure of the US’s first black president had been greeted with a loud sigh of relief across the region.

It is not just on the issue of Iran’s contentious nuclear programme that Obama had angered the Arabs. His silence on Syria was yet another major source of concern for the Gulf Arabs. Ironically, much of the carnage in Syria – which killing nearly a million people and displaced more than half of its population – happened on the watch of the Nobel laureate president whose soaring rhetoric and promise of a better world once charmed us all.

The rising Iranian influence – and what is routinely described by the official Arab media as the “Iranian interference in Arab affairs” – has the region, especially Gulf Arab states, increasingly worried.

No wonder the Arabs have been so eager to roll out the red carpet for Obama’s unusual successor, ignoring his hawkish posturing on the campaign trail against Muslims and immigrants.        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 work with to 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. That, unburdened by ideological and political commitments, Trump may succeed where others have failed is the faint hope across the region.

This perhaps explains the extraordinarily warm reception that Trump received in Riyadh, with King Salman welcoming him at the steps of Air Force One.

While the focus has understandably 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 was more to this unusual visit than big bucks and diplomatic optics.

By bringing together the leaders of more than 50 Muslim nations as part of the US-Arab-Islamic summit, the Saudis didn’t just instantly floor the vainglorious US president. The summit presented the image of a united front, subtly underscoring the heft and leading role of the kingdom in the Arab and Muslim world.

Notwithstanding the repeated allusions to the big elephant in the room, it would be simplistic to dismiss it as a regional alliance against a regional rival, with which the Arabs have been locked in a bitter conflict in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.

In that imposing convention centre in Riyadh, there were scores of leaders representing numerous Arab and Muslim countries – from Maghreb to South-East Asia – that have had no issues with Iran or even a history of Shia-Sunni conflict.

However, battling a serious credibility crisis back home so early in his presidency, it is doubtful what Trump can do to help America’s friends and allies in the Middle East. Calls demanding his impeachment for his perceived links to Russia and Putin’s alleged role in the US presidential polls are getting strident by the day.

The Riyadh summit has been successful in that it has helped bring down tensions between the West and the Muslim world, just a wee bit. Given the devastating fallout of the Muslim ban – which is being bitterly fought in courts across the US and has dealt a serious blow to America’s image as a land of opportunity and religious freedom – this summit was useful and, perhaps, badly needed.

The scenes of Trump awkwardly sword-dancing with his hosts and rubbing shoulders with Arab-Muslim leaders may, let us hope, check some of the madness roiling the land of the free. However, the smug, duplicitous sermonising on the issue of ‘Islamic terrorism’ while sitting in the birthplace of Islam was rather too much for the faithful around the world.

Trump’s excessive proximity to Israel and his hugging, backslapping and in-your-face ‘bromance’ with Netanyahu is also a major 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 and is sacred to both Muslims and Christians.

He has, of course, sought to balance it with a visit to Bethlehem and a 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 peace in the Middle East.   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 declared 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 in the months since he assumed 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?

The writer is an award-winning journalist.

Email: [email protected]