Trump’s historic Saudi visit

Trump’s historic Saudi visit

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump make their way to a luncheon after Trump received the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. — AFP

If Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, his first overseas stop as president, is “a diplomatic coup”, other historic first steps are also being taken in the Kingdom. It is here that Trump will aim at building stronger partnerships, restoring trust between the United States and its longstanding partners in the Middle East and unveiling a new administration that is expressing itself differently on Middle East issues.

As Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman warmly received Trump upon his arrival, the significance of the visit should not be lost. Trump is the only American president to make Saudi Arabia, or any Muslim country, his first stop overseas. The implications are tremendous as Trump’s arrival in the Kingdom portends greater US engagement in this region. Rebuilding relationships is essential as Trump’s first priority on his maiden voyage as president is to win back America’s friends and allies in the Middle East.

In a packed two-day schedule Trump will attend a Saudi-US, then a GCC summit, visit cultural centers and oversee a Saudi-US CEO business forum. The highlight will be at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh where 55 countries will gather for what analysts say will be game-changing dialogue and exchange. At the summit, Trump will speak about his “hopes of a peaceful vision of Islam”, in what aides say will be a speech the president hopes will resonate worldwide and express “a common vision of peace, progress and prosperity”. The summit will address ways of building more robust and effective security partnerships to counter and prevent the growing threat of terrorism and violent extremism. It is also at the summit that Trump is expected to portray Islam as a religion of peace and to stress that the US is not at war with the world’s Muslims.

There is much talk of turning the page, as the Riyadh summit will focus on new alliances to confront extremist groups. This partnership is cemented by several objectives that all the parties share: defeating Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS), containing Iranian influence and delivering some kind of Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. Trump must also change the perception that the US cares only about its own interests, not the struggles and aspirations of people elsewhere in the world, including the Arab world.

In keeping with that line, Trump’s historic visit is not just political. More than 100 chief executives and leaders of the most influential companies from Saudi Arabia and the US will attend the inaugural Saudi-US CEO forum in Riyadh that will build on the visit to create new private sector opportunities and facilitate ease of business between Saudi Arabia and the US under the theme of “partnership for generations”.

After the Kingdom, Trump will also travel to Israel, have an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, and attend the NATO summit in Brussels and the Group of 7 meeting in Sicily. But out of all of his stops, it is undoubtedly the visit to Saudi Arabia that will have the greatest impact on the region and the world.

The US must stay engaged in the Middle East. Trump’s visit shows that he will not walk away from the region, no matter how daunting its challenges. Establishing personal rapport and trust with the leaders of the region is a necessary first step, but it should not be the end goal. When the US and its allies finally defeat Daesh, as Trump has promised, the work must continue to help keep the dark forces of chaos at bay.

No matter how warm the visit, how genial the relationships, cordiality cannot alone resolve the daunting demographic, social, economic and political challenges Middle Eastern countries face.