Could the Riyadh summit be a turning point?

May 21, 2017

There are many reasons to welcome the prospect of the summit meetings scheduled in Riyadh between US President Donald Trump and the Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council leaderships as well as the heads of other Arab and Muslim countries. It is significant that the Saudi capital was chosen to be the first overseas stop of the new US president. It is reason­able to see it as an indicator of the importance America’s 45th president gives to relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

The fight against terrorism and the Islamic State (ISIS) is expected to loom large at the summit. Discussions could help to refocus attention on the problem of radicalisation and on the way to fight perverted interpretations of religion. It is time to reverse the trend towards extremism by agreeing to an adequate anti-radicalisation strategy. There is also a need for consensus on the shaping of a credible counter-narrative that challenges the dangerous distortion of Islam. Any progress, at least now, will bear the seal of legitimacy conferred by the collective will of more than 50 Arab and Muslim leaders.

Through the large Riyadh gathering, Trump should gain a fuller picture of the hopes and frustrations of Arabs and Muslims. The summit will present him with a precious opportunity to deflect the accusations of Islamophobia that have swirled around him, both as candidate and as president. He provoked intense criti­cism for calling for a ban on Muslim entry into the United States. When in office, he tried to restrict travel from Muslim majority countries. From his discussions in Riyadh, Trump can hopefully see that Arabs and Muslims are as much victims of extremism and terror as any other people.

The sense of America working closely with Arab countries is especially important in the context of Iran’s aggressive policies in the region. Arab leaders, especially those of the Gulf Cooperation Council, expect the United States to push back harder against Tehran’s destabilising agenda, not least its sectarian proxy wars.

They will also hope that Trump would factor the Arab perspec­tive into his view of the Palestinian-Israeli issue. After the Riyadh meetings, the US president visits Tel Aviv and then meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

It is to be hoped that Trump will realise the need for a fair and lasting solution to a long and anguished conflict. In this respect, his administration has shown encouraging restraint in refusing to heed the Israeli prime minister’s call for the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The two main parties at the summit — the Saudi leadership and the Trump administration — are striving to build a whole new partnership. Most Arab and Muslim leaders want the same thing. Let the new partnerships go beyond military and security coop­eration, crucial though it may be. Let it embrace Arab and US cooperation in technology transfer and the promotion of science and innovation. Let the partnership be geared towards long-term socio-economic progress and sustainable development.

Let it go beyond mutual stereotypes that have lasted all too long.