‘The ultimate deal’
Donald Trump danced with a sword, sold arms, made threats and promised peace — all in one Middle East tour
Trump in Saudi Arabia
US President Donald Trump met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday. The visit was part of a tour that saw Trump meet with the leaders of over 50 Muslim majority countries in Saudi Arabia and become the first serving US president to stand by the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The first overseas trip of Trump’s presidency also included a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on Tuesday and will take in talks with the heads of the EU and NATO in Brussels before Trump finally heads home on 27 May.
Nowhere is Trump likely to meet the warmth of the reception he was accorded on arriving in Saudi Arabia, the first leg of his tour, on Monday.
“The Saudis really wanted to impress, they wanted to win him over. Their objective is clear, they want to reverse the negative sentiment they felt was projected against the House of Al-Saud by former US president Barack Obama,” said a Riyadh-based foreign diplomat.
“And I think they got what they wanted in this respect, in terms of rhetoric at least though it is not yet clear how this will translate into concrete action in terms to putting pressure on Iran. What Trump did do is point a finger at Iran as a supporter of terror groups in the Middle East, implicating some of Tehran’s closest allies, especially Hizbullah.”
Trump’s Saudi hosts, who perceive Iran as the ultimate threat to the rule of the House of Al-Saud, excluded Iran from the summit of Muslim majority states addressed by the US president.
On Monday, as Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubair said Trump’s visit has exposed the falsity of accusations that the US president was anti-Muslim his US opposite number Rex Tillerson was bust hailing Washington’s support of Saudi Arabia against the malign intentions of Iran.
Newly re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shrugged off the accusations and implicit threats and dismissed the US-Islamic summit as “ceremonial”.
“He has a point,” says a retired Egyptian diplomat. “For beyond Trump’s statements to the summit and those made by some Muslim and Arab leaders little concrete emerged. One thing it did show is that Riyadh is now the uncontested leader of the Arab and Muslim world. It also offered Trump, whose presidential campaign had included so much Islam shaming, the opportunity to make a bit of U-Turn and call Islam one of the leading faiths of the world.”
Arab and Western diplomats in Cairo agree that in this sense Trump’s visit was a political victory for Riyadh which has been busy positioning itself in recent years as the leading Arab and Muslim capital. They note that it was Saudi Arabia that the US president chose as his first Arab stop and not Egypt, as has been the case for decades.
“And given that it was all orchestrated by aides of the influential son of King Salman it amounts to a major political victory for Second Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohamed bin Salman in his internal squabble with the king’s brother Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef,” said a Cairo-based Western diplomat who has served in several countries in the Middle East. “Given the role the son of the king played in concluding the unprecedented Saudi arms purchases from the US over the next 10 years it is safe to conclude that Mohamed bin Salman has won Washington over his side. One could say the Saudis received not only the rhetoric against Iran in exchange for their buying arms from the US but also Washington taking clear sides in an escalating domestic political battle.”
Informed sources in Cairo also say the Saudis also gave Trump a clear commitment “to start a process of normalisation with Israel”.
In Cairo speculation is growing among foreign diplomats over the role Saudi Arabia might play — alongside Jordan and Morocco in their shared capacity as the custodians of holy Muslim sites in the occupied Palestinian territories — in the negotiations which Trump, on arriving in Israel, said he is committed to pursuing.
Israel was the second stop on Trump’s tour. He told his hosts that while in Saudi Arabia he had found a growing sense among Arab and Muslim states that they share a common cause with Israel against Iran.
While Trump’s anti-Tehran rhetoric was undoubtedly welcome to his Israeli interlocutors “Israel is not really getting what it, and what the Saudis too, really want from Trump, which is to scrap the nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration with Tehran,” says one Cairo-based European ambassador.
Informed diplomatic sources say while Trump may criticise the deal it is highly unlikely he will tear it up. They also agree Trump is in no position to conclude a final peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis despite saying, during his visit to Bethlehem on Tuesday, that it is essential for regional peace.
A Palestinian diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may well have to bow to Trump’s wishes and take part in a meeting later this summer with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington but he finds it “very hard to believe” a deal could actually be reached.
“Trump may want to be the American president who concludes a historic settlement in the Middle East but this is not possible with the Netanyahu government, no matter what the good intentions of Arab leaders, including President [Abdel-Fattah] Al-Sisi, King Abdullah [of Jordan] and the Saudis and the UAE,” adds the Palestinian diplomat.
Trump’s domestic political problems leave the US president little leverage in pressuring Netanyahu to do what it takes to secure a deal, says the diplomat.
“The most Netanyahu will give are some measures to improve the harsh economic reality faced by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The most Trump can do to pressure Israel is to draw out the decision whether or not to transfer the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
By the end of this month Trump will have to either use his prerogative to postpone the transfer for another six months or to go ahead and announce the move.
Addressing Trump during his visit to Israel Netanyahu said he was happy to welcome the US President to “Jerusalem, the united capital of the Jewish state”.
Sources close to the talks that Trump held in Riyadh with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Countries ahead of the US-Islamic summit said the US president made it clear he had not made up his mind about the transfer. According to one: “Trump was told that if the transfer went ahead now he would make it even harder for Arabs and Palestinians to move towards the historic peace deal with Israel that is necessary to shift the focus from the Arab-Israeli struggle on to the war on terror and the isolation of Iran.”
Talk about a historic Middle East deal, say diplomats, is more wishful thinking than the reflection of any real possibility. Some go further. The chances of a final peace deal being signed between Israel and the Palestinians, they argue, are as slim as the chances of Arab Sunni states agreeing to establish a joint military force to battle against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.