Strategic implications of Riyadh Summit

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Shahid M Amin

THERE is no doubt that the Saudi Government went all out to extend a big welcome to President Trump. To many observers, this looked highly ironic since it was the same Donald Trump who had, during the Presidential campaign, said that “Islam hates us” and had portrayed Islam as the enemy of USA. He had harped on the threat of Islamist extremism and thus inflamed Islamophobia. Regarding Saudi Arabia, Trump had said that USA was “losing a tremendous amount of money” defending the kingdom. One of Trump’s first acts on becoming President was to impose a travel ban on nationals of seven Muslim States. And yet, on May 21, 2017, Trump was being applauded by Saudi Arabia and fifty Muslim states that had come together for the “Arab Islamic American Summit”.
The explanation for this paradox is that in international relations, states are moved by their national interests, rather than by oratorical jargon or ideological predilections. During Trump’s visit to Riyadh, US firms signed contracts for supply of weapons worth $110 billion. There were also deals for projects in energy and infrastructure, and projections of $350 billion worth of transactions over ten years. US arms sales to Kuwait and other Gulf states will be in addition. Trump exulted that this meant “jobs, jobs, jobs”. These agreements would necessitate a long-term American strategic commitment to Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries. The latter regard this as a welcome departure from the strains in relations that had developed under Obama. Trump described Saudi Arabia as the “magnificent Kingdom” with which the US had age-old ties and he spoke of opening a “new chapter” in the bilateral relationship. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has enjoyed a protective US security cover, but this had become undependable under Obama. Trump’s visit marks a revival of the old security relationship.
In his much-anticipated speech to Muslim leaders, Trump struck a note of reconciliation. He described Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths.” It was symbolic that the first foreign country he was visiting was Saudi Arabia where he was meeting heads of states of Muslim world. He stressed the commonality of “three Abrahamic faiths” viz. Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In strategic terms, these words showed that Trump, after becoming President, wanted friendship and collaboration with the Muslim world, and had abandoned the collision course with the latter that his pre-election utterances had suggested.
The central theme of Trump’s address to the Muslim world was on fighting terrorism. He was careful to stress that the “war on terrorism isn’t a battle between different faiths”. He acknowledged the efforts and achievements of Muslim countries in battling extremism, who had also borne the brunt of the killings by terrorists. “This is a battle between good and evil.” He wanted Muslim countries not to wait for US help to crush terror groups. They must ensure that terrorists find no sanctuary.
“Drive them out of your places of worship, your communities, your holy land and the earth.” He urged Muslim countries to take the lead in combatting radicalization. In a veiled criticism of Obama and Bush who wanted to impose democracy and Western values, Trump promised that “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others, but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust.”
Iran was singled out both by King Salman and Trump “for sponsoring terrorism financially and militarily” from Syria to Yemen. This was another strategic dimension of the visit viz. that USA and Saudi Arabia view Iran as the main security threat. The Saudi King had rarely made such a direct public attack on Iran. Trump’s talks in Riyadh have tilted balance of power against Iran. Revolutionary Iran has undoubtedly pursued policies that have destabilized the region. It has used military force to secure its objectives. In Syria, a regime representing 10% of population is oppressing the 70% Sunni majority, with the help of thousands of troops of Iran and Hezbollah, the Shia Lebanese militants armed by Iran. Iran is supporting Shia rebels in Yemen and is also active in Iraq and Bahrain.
Another dimension of Trump’s tour was to revive efforts to promote a solution of the Palestine problem. It has long been an intractable problem but as Egyptian President El-Sisi told Trump: “You have a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible.” Solving the Palestianian problem can be a peace breakthrough. The US is the only country that can pressurize Israel to show accommodation and Trump could be the American ruler who might do some real arm-twisting.
There is some disappointment in Pakistan that its Prime Minister could not address the Riyadh summit. But neither did the heads of states/governments of Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, Malaysia or Senegal. There was simply not enough time. Moreover, the focus of visit was Middle East and Arabian peninsula. Our bigger problem is in the context of polarization against Iran. We want to keep out of the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But the strategic reality is that our alliance with Saudi Arabia is much more important than our relations with Iran. Let us also not forget that since the 1990s, Iran has sought to establish a strategic partnership with India, which is training hundreds of Iranian military personnel.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.
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