Campaign promises and vilifications yield to Mideast complexities

This story appears in the Trump Abroad feature series. View the full series.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud escorts President Donald Trump and first lady Melania to a royal banquet at the Al Murabba Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21. (White House/Shealah Craighead)

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud escorts President Donald Trump and first lady Melania to a royal banquet at the Al Murabba Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21. (White House/Shealah Craighead)

by Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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President Donald Trump escaped the swirl of controversies and investigations surrounding his administration in Washington earlier this week for the welcoming arms of ... the Saudis? In an administration where reality continues to be stranger than fiction, Trump began his first foreign trip in Saudi Arabia, where one could not help but marvel at the welcome he received by the Saudis.

During the presidential campaign, Trump had vilified both Saudi Arabia and Islam. He blasted the Clinton Foundation for accepting donations from the Saudis, referring to the Saudis as "people that push gays off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly. And yet, you [Hillary Clinton] take their money."

He suggested Saudi Arabia was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, asking rhetorically on Fox News, "Who blew up the World Trade Center? ... It wasn't the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents."

And in a CNN interview, he said, "Islam hates us."

Yet all this was now forgiven as Trump has dropped into lockstep with Saudi hard-line attitudes over Iran. Trump's one overarching goal for his Mideast trip is the creation of a grand anti-Iran/anti-Islamic-State alliance, a "Middle East NATO," so to speak, that would include the Sunni Arab states and Israel, with the backing of the United States.

Sunni Saudi Arabia views Shiite Iran as an existential threat, as does Israel. Both countries were infuriated by the deal President Barack Obama had brokered with Iran in 2015, curtailing Iran's nuclear program to a civilian one in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions and release of Iranian assets.

Trump, too, has taken the hard line that Iran is the greatest threat to security in the Middle East and is determined to completely repudiate Obama's policy on Iran.

In return for the newly improved relations with the U.S. and the shared hard line against Iran, the Saudis have opened their cash spigots with up to $110 billion in U.S. weapons purchases over five years, part of a larger 10-year $350 billion agreement between the two countries. In addition, Saudi Arabia's Sovereign Wealth Fund has committed to a $40 billion investment in U.S. infrastructure projects.

Waiting patiently on the sidelines as the second destination of Trump's trip was Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was delighted by the fact that the Saudis had allowed Air Force One to take a direct route on May 22 from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Tel Aviv, Israel, a first for the Saudis and Americans. The important symbolism of this was not lost on Israel, which, despite its military superiority in the neighborhood, craves official regional recognition as part of legitimizing its existence.

The problem, however, is that Israel wants to make common cause with Sunni Arab nations against Shiite Iran while relegating the Palestinian issue to a subordinate one. In other words, Israel seeks an alliance without linking it to the issue of peace with the Palestinians.

The Saudis made it clear to Trump that while their allowing of the direct flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv was a way of showing Israel what the future may hold, this future was contingent upon an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

On this, the Saudis have remained consistent in their refusal to delink improved relations with Israel from an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. In fact, the Saudis first offered Israel a regional deal in 2002 of normalization with the Arab world known as the Arab Peace Initiative in return for a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Despite the emergence of a younger, more pragmatic Saudi leadership embodied in deputy crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman that views Israel as a practical ally against Iran, the Palestinian issue remains a sacred cow that cannot be sacrificed without serious consequences.

As Trump arrived in Jerusalem after his meetings in Saudi Arabia, it was clear that he had heeded Saudi Arabia. Trump stated that he and the Arab states shared the belief that any new regional realignment was contingent upon an Israeli peace agreement with the Palestinians. The future of the anti-Iran coalition was now officially tied to the Palestinian issue, despite Netanyahu's strenuous efforts to separate the two.

By emphasizing the importance of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement first, Trump continues to backtrack on campaign promises he made to Israel, as the complex realities of the Middle East are becoming increasingly apparent after his assuming the presidency.

Shelved for the time being are Trump's plans to quickly move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for the same reasons every American president has demurred from doing so — the tremendous worldwide Arab and Muslim backlash to such a unilateral move.

In addition, when Trump visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a first for a sitting U.S. president, neither Netanyahu nor any other Israeli official was invited to accompany him, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declined to say that the sacred Jewish site was part of Israel in response to a reporter's question, saying instead it was part of Jerusalem.

The result has been a dramatic drop in Trump's popularity among Israelis, from a high of 79 percent in January to only 56 percent, according to a poll commissioned by The Jerusalem Post.

The "Middle East NATO" alliance Trump envisions sounds nice in theory but complicating factors abound to make it difficult to realize. Iran is a major Middle East power with a population of 80 million and will not be cowed away from asserting regional influence. Iran is also closely working with Russia in reversing the tide of the Syrian war in favor of the Syrian government and the Russians have shown that they are a new superpower in the Middle East to be reckoned with.

In addition, a Trump policy of exacerbating the Shiite-Sunni sectarian divide among Muslims is guaranteed to result in increased conflict and extremism.

The Sunni Saudi-Shiite Iranian rivalry currently manifests itself in both major conflicts in the Middle East — Yemen and Syria — and furthering the divide will only increase conflict.

In an April 2016 interview, Obama advised the Saudis to "share the neighborhood" with Iran. This does not mean accepting Iran's often-aggressive behavior or taking sides in the Sunni-Shiite divide. But it does mean that both Iran and Saudi Arabia have legitimate national security concerns and bridging them based on mutual respect is the only solution that will not lead to further conflict and extremism.

[Ra'fat Al-Dajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]

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