U.S.-West Asia

Business as usual

Print edition : June 23, 2017

President Donald Trump delivers a speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Centre in Riyadh on May 21. Photo: AP/Evan Vucci

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (second from left) joins Trump in a dance during a welcome ceremony at Al Murabba Palace in Riyadh on May 20. Photo: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST

Donald Trump with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23. Photo: AP/Sebastian Scheiner

During Donald Trump’s recent tour of West Asia, when he signed trade and defence deals worth $480 billion with Saudi Arabia, even the customary protestations about human rights abuses and democracy in the region were noticeably absent.

President Donald Trump’s whirlwind tour of West Asia and western Europe has left a lot of political debris in its wake. In West Asia, the two countries he visited were Saudi Arabia and Israel. His speech in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, stood out for its pure effrontery and chutzpah. On the campaign trail last year, he had called for a “complete shutdown on Muslims” entering the United States. Trump took a-180-degree turn in his speech in Riyadh and asserted that there was “no battle between different faiths” and actually admitted that 95 per cent of the victims of terrorism were Muslims themselves. He did not have a single word of criticism for his Saudi hosts despite the mayhem their policies have caused in the region. Instead, the main focus of his speech was on Iran, painting it as the fountainhead of terrorism and sectarianism in the region.

Saudi Arabia had invited all Sunni heads of state to attend the occasion. More than 50 Sunni leaders showed up, including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In his speech to the assembled leaders, Trump put virtually all the blame for the spread of terrorism and instability in the region on Shia-majority Iran. Trump described Iran as a despotic state despite the rest of the world applauding the open and free elections that were held there just before the U.S. President touched down on Saudi soil. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, noted that Trump was visiting the region at a time when 45 million Iranians were participating in an election. “Then he visited a country that I doubt knows the definition of elections,” Rouhani observed.

Trump, in his speech, also denounced Hizbollah, the Lebanese militia which has been crucial in the fight to stave off the terrorist onslaught in Syria and Iraq. Hizbollah is the only militia that is still able to put up a fight against Israel even as many Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan have become virtual allies of the Zionist state. Regime change in Iran and the destruction of Hizbollah have been key goals of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia for many years now. With the Daesh (Islamic State) and Al Nusra on the verge of being wiped out in the region, the U.S. and its allies are preparing the ground for a confrontation with Hizbollah and its main backers, Iran and Syria. Under Trump, much of American military firepower in Syria has been aimed at the Syrian army and the militias supporting the government.

Trump clubbed Iran with the terror groups Al Qaeda and the Daesh. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, trains and arms terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades Iran has fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” Trump declared from his prepared speech. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, in his speech welcoming the U.S. President, said that Iran was a common enemy that both the countries would have to confront together.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been primarily responsible for creating the dangerous Sunni-Shia sectarian divide in the region. Saudi “Wahhabism” has become the dominant strain of Sunni Islam in many parts of the world, including India. The two main terror groups, the Daesh and the Al Qaeda, are both inspired by Wahhabism.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, sarcastically tweeted after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia: “Iran—fresh from real elections—attacked by @POTUS in that bastion of democracy & moderation. Foreign Policy or simply milking KSA of $480B?” During Trump’s visit, the two countries signed trade and defence deals worth $480 billion. The highlight was the defence deal worth more than $110 billion. The major parts of the defence deal had already been negotiated during the Barack Obama administration.

This is being touted as the single biggest arms deal in history. The U.S. State Department had argued that an arms deal of such a magnitude was essential for “the long-term security” of Saudi Arabia. The State Department also does not hide the fact that the main objective of the arms deal is to create jobs in the U.S. and, in the process, fulfil at least one of Trump’s campaign promises. The Iranian Foreign Minister pointed out that the last time the Saudis spent money for weapons on such a huge scale was just after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Saudis had spent billions to finance and arm the Iraqi army in the war Saddam Hussein launched against Iran. That war lasted eight years, leading to more than a million deaths.

Zarif, writing in T he N ew Y ork T imes, was of the view that either Trump “is extorting our Saudi neighbours out of money they do not have” or “at worst turning the United States into Saudi Arabia’s mercenary in the Middle East [West Asia]”. He said the U.S. would be better served if it chose to address the serious problems that the region was facing. “Lots of beautiful military equipment,” as President Trump described U.S. weaponry in Riyadh, would not be able to resolve the problems posed by terrorism, Zarif asserted. “What will work is a genuine effort to forge inclusive engagement among regional powers based on a policy of coexistence and acceptance that military solutions are futile,” said Zarif. Unlike his predecessor, Obama, Trump gave up all pretences of U.S. concerns about human rights abuses and democracy in the region by embracing the Gulf monarchies in a bear hug. In the last days of the Obama presidency, there was veiled criticism of Saudi policies, especially in Yemen, coming out of Washington. The United Nations has said that Yemen is “experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”.

The Obama administration had even suspended the supply of lethal weapons to the Saudis because of their rampant misuse in Yemen. The Trump administration was quick to rescind that suspension. The signing of the biggest weapons deal with Saudi Arabia will make the U.S. more complicit in this crisis. “These fools think by spending money they can win the friendship of enemies of Islam,” said Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. “They are like dairy cows. They will be milked, and when they are out of milk, they will be slaughtered.”

Trump did not have kind words for the Saudis when he was on the campaign trail. In one of his interviews before becoming President, he said that the Gulf states would cease to exist without U.S. protection. He had also alleged that the Saudi government was involved in the 9/11 terror attack on the U.S. An email sent by Hillary Clinton to her campaign manager John Podesta noted that the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and other radical Sunni groups in the region”. The former Vice President, Joe Biden, had asserted this fact in a speech two years ago.

The Saudis got what they were asking for from the U.S.—an unlimited supply of weapons and the characterisation of Iran as a “terrorist” state. Most of the other heads of state who were present in Riyadh were happy because President Trump did not pay even lip service to political freedom or human rights. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Egypt, and many of the Gulf monarchies see the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their regimes. Trump described el-Sisi as a close friend. Egypt has imprisoned the entire top leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the former President, Mohammed Morsi.

In his Riyadh speech, Trump repeatedly talked about “driving out terrorism”. In many countries in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Muslim Brotherhood has been branded as a terrorist organisation. Trump also praised the rulers of Bahrain, where a Shia majority that has been demanding its rights for decades is being brutally suppressed. Just days before Trump’s visit to the region, protesters in the city of Al Awamiya, located in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, were brutally dealt with. Al Awamiya is the hometown of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the prominent Shia cleric who was executed by the Saudi authorities in 2016. The people there were protesting against the demolition of a historical site in the city. Trump has given the regional despots “carte blanche” to ride roughshod over citizens.

‘Israel’s biggest friend’

From Saudi Arabia, Trump flew directly to Israel. He never forgets to describe himself as “Israel’s biggest friend”. He had appointed an outspoken supporter of Israel, David Friedman, as his Ambassador to Israel. Once again, the main focus was on Iran, with the Palestinian issue more or less on the back burner. “Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon,” Trump told his Israeli hosts.

He made a brief visit to Bethlehem, where he met with the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas. There was no mention of the “ultimate deal” between Palestinians and Israelis that Trump had boasted he would broker. Even the symbolic efforts at achieving Palestinian statehood have been rebuffed by Israelis, who go on building on more and more occupied land.

Trump, thankfully, did not talk about moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as he had promised during his campaign. He had also pledged to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran. Both these promises are not going to be implemented any time soon.

As of now, there are no big policy changes to differentiate the Trump administration from the previous Obama administration as far as West Asia is concerned. But once Trump reached European shores, he ruffled the feathers of the U.S.’ long-term allies by raising questions about the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and refusing to endorse the concept of “collective self defence”, which is the centrepiece of the military alliance.

Trump is also threatening to walk out of the historic Paris climate change accord. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, speaking after Trump’s visit to the NATO headquarters and the G7 summit, said that the U.S. under President Trump could no longer be viewed as a “reliable partner”.

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