Manama: As President Donald Trump prepares for his first overseas trip this week, his decision to make Saudi Arabia his first stop has prompted US and Saudi officials to highlight the powerful symbolism of an American president choosing to visit the birthplace of Islam as his first stop rather than to neighbours Canada or Mexico.
Trump’s three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, which begins on Friday, “sends a clear message that the US is standing with its close allies in the region and that they’re not abandoning them,” a senior Saudi official said.
White House officials also said Trump, who campaigned on an “America First” slogan, wants to demonstrate leadership abroad on his visit with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Israel and the West Bank, the pope at the Vatican, Nato leaders in Brussels and G7 counterparts in Sicily during his nine-day trek to the Middle East and Europe.
To mark the visit, Saudi Arabia has launched a website dedicated to the three major summits the kingdom will host in Riyadh on May 20 and 21. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia welcomes President Donald Trump and leaders from across the Islamic world and the United States for this historic meeting,” the site says.
The other summits involving Trump are between Saudi Arabia and the US on May 20 and between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the US on May 21. “Over the course of three major summits, historic relationships will be strengthened through a shared belief in tolerance and collaboration. The foundation will be laid for a new beginning and the promise of a brighter future for all,” the site said.
Bashir to attend gathering
It added that the countries participating in the wide summit are strategically aligned and economically interdependent.
At the GCC-US summit, the Gulf leaders and Trump will “discuss threats to regional security and stability and the building of stronger commercial ties between them”, while at the Arab-Islamic-American summit, leaders of the world’s Islamic nations and Trump “will address ways of building more robust and effective security partnerships to counter and prevent the growing threat of terrorism and violent extremism around the globe through promoting tolerance and moderation.”
Sudan’s foreign minister meanwhile said yesterday that president Omar Al Bashir will attend the gathering in Saudi Arabia, but it is uncertain whether he will meet the US president.
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to George W. Bush, said that since the trip would be Trump’s first overseas, the stakes were high. “The meaning of his first trip abroad will be exaggerated, but it gives him a chance to get bipartisan accolades.”
Riyadh will be looking for assurances that the Trump administration will keep up pressure to stop what the Gulf states see as Tehran’s destabilising activities in the region. The US-Saudi alliance has experienced turbulence since Riyadh faulted what it saw as Obama’s withdrawal from the region, a perceived tilt toward Iran since the 2011 Arab uprisings and a lack of direct action against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, analysts said.
“This [new] administration comes in and ... says, ‘No, wait a minute, Iran is active,’” a US administration official said, referring to Gulf states’ views of Iran’s involvement through proxies in regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. The Trump administration has called the nuclear agreement with Iran “the worst deal ever negotiated,” and senior administration officials have repeatedly criticised Iran’s behaviour for its support for Al Assad, its ballistic missile activities and its support for militant groups in the region.
Besides meeting with Saudi and GCC officials, Trump will also have lunch with leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states will be looking for further US support in the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Iran-aligned Al Houthi militia and troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to restore the internationally recognised government to power.
Saudi Arabia will also want to showcase high-profile investment deals with American companies to show progress on its ambitious “Vision 2030” economic and social reform agenda, while Washington says US arms sales arms worth tens of billions of dollars are in the pipeline.
Melania to dine with royals
The US president along with first lady Melania Trump will dine with Saudi royal family members. Trump, known for his penchant for Twitter, will participate in a Twitter forum with young people, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said on Tuesday. Trump will deliver a speech on “the need to confront radical ideology” McMaster said.
King Salman and Trump will also inaugurate the Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology (GCEII) that “counters and prevents the spread of extremist ideology through promoting moderation, compassion and supporting the dissemination of positive dialogue”.
On Monday, King Salman said he was confident the Saudi-US summit would contribute to consolidating the strategic relations between the two countries in various areas.
— With inputs from AP, Reuters & Washington Post