Trump's First Foreign Visit To Saudi Arabia and Israel
President Trump embarked on his first visit abroad on May 19, travelling first to Saudi Arabia (May 20-21), and after that to Israel and the West Bank (May 22-23).The visits were very important, both regarding what was said, and what was left unsaid.
In Riyadh, Trump held talks with King Salman and his advisors and signed agreements for sale of US weapons to the Kingdom. He also met with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, as well as those representing 55 Muslim-majority states, most of them Sunni. A “Riyadh Declaration” was issued at the end of the visit.
There were several important outcomes and developments during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. First, Trump signed an agreement for sale of US weapons worth $350 billion to the Saudis over a period of ten years. Of this, weapons worth $110 billion would be supplied immediately, the rest being supplied later.
This is the single largest arms deal in history—more than what the Obama Administration sold to the Saudis during its entire term. Moreover, it includes advanced weapon systems such as THAAD, Patriot missiles, precision guided munitions, attack helicopters, tanks, and artillery. This deal will keep the US arms industry humming for quite some time.
On their part, the Saudis reportedly promised to invest $200 billion in infrastructure and other projects in the US. Trump wants this investment mainly in the “Rust Belt” states of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—his core constituency.
Second, the Riyadh Declaration welcomed the creation of the “Islamic Military Coalition” (IMC) to combat terrorism, with a reserve force of 34,000 troops (called a Sunni NATO by some observers), to be contributed by the 55 Muslim-majority states mentioned above. It also announced that a “Middle East Strategic Alliance” would be set up under Saudi leadership by 2018. Finally, the Declaration said that a “global centre for countering extremist thought” would be established in Riyadh.
Third, both Trump and the Saudis repeatedly stated that Iran was the source of terrorism, sectarianism, and instability in the region. They adopted an openly confrontational stance towards Tehran and called for “isolating” it. In response, the Iranian Foreign Ministry accused the US of stirring up “Iranophobia” to boost arms sales in the region.
Fourth, the core problem of the Middle East—the Arab-Israeli issue—was not even mentioned in the Riyadh Declaration. Instead, all attention was focussed on terrorism, and specifically on Iran, which was described as the fountainhead of all evil. This marks an important shift in regional priorities—the Arab-Israeli dispute, which is the primary source of regional instability has been put in the deep freeze; its place has been taken by terrorism, for which Iran and its allies are being [wrongly] blamed.
There were many ironies in what happened in Riyadh and Tel Aviv. First, the fountainhead of terrorism in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, aided by Qatar. Together, they are responsible for the emergence and support to outfits such as ISIS and Nusra Front, earlier known as Al-Qaida, which have wreaked havoc in Syria. Riyadh cannot support terrorism and host a “global centre for countering extremism” at the same time.
Second, in the name of fighting terrorism unleashed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the US, Saudis, and their allies are very likely to intensify their efforts to effect regime change in Syria and possibly Iran, which has been unjustly demonised. It is possible that the 34,000 troops of the “Islamic Military Coalition,” headed by Gen. Raheel Sharif, former Chief of the Pakistani Army, may be used for this purpose.
Other targets of the IMC may include the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yemen will likely witness more death and destruction when the Saudis get more lethal weapons from the US.
Third, prospects for a just solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute have receded further. The issue is no longer even on the agenda of the US, Saudis, and their Arab and other Sunni allies. This means that the situation in the Occupied Territories could worsen, as the Palestinians become more frustrated and Israel is further emboldened to rain death and destruction on them.
Fourth, sectarianism in the region is likely to grow further, with the “Sunni NATO” aiming at regime change in Syria and destabilisation of Iran. In fact, instability is likely to grow wherever there is a significant Shia population, such as Pakistan.
In a nutshell, the real objective of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel was to mobilise the Sunnis of the Arab and Islamic countries for a war against Iran, Syria, and other Shias in the region, with the help of Israel. As of now, the Saudis and their allies are closer to Israel than to some other Muslim-majority states such as Iran and Syria. Who would have thought that this could happen?
[The writer is a former Ambassador of India who has served in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Libya, among other countries]