The first trip of Trump to the Middle East highly symbolic but shows no clear strategy

Sunday 14/05/2017
Arab-Muslim role. Jordanian King Abdullah II (2-R) speaks with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (2-L) as Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) stands in the background, at the Arab summit in Jordan, last March. (AFP)

Washington- In a highly symbolic move, US President Donald Trump has chosen a visit to Saudi Arabia and a meeting with leaders of Muslim countries to kick off his first foreign trip since taking of­fice about four months ago.

But as Trump is signalling the United States’ return to efforts to help sort out Middle East issues, observers said it is far from certain that the president’s tour will result in substantial progress.

Breaking with a tradition in which a new US president visits one of his country’s neighbours — Canada or Mexico — on his first foreign trip, Trump is opting for a grand gesture designed to show his determination to re-establish American leadership in the Middle East. Starting May 19, Trump will go to Riyadh first, where he will meet with Saudi officials and take part in separate meetings with Gulf states and with leaders from Arab and Muslim countries, including Niger and Pakistan.

The president will then head to Israel and to Rome, completing a tour of the spiritual centres of the three major monotheistic reli­gions. Trump is to attend a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25 and a Group of Seven meeting in Italy on May 26.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, also put a Middle East trip high on his agenda when he became president in 2009 but his first visit to the region, which in­cluded a speech in Cairo announc­ing a “new beginning” in ties be­tween the United States and the Muslim world as its centrepiece, did not include Israel.

Obama later angered Arabs and Israel alike by agreeing to a nuclear deal with Iran and further rattled US partners by refusing to use military power against Syria even after Damascus crossed his de­clared “red line” by using chemical weapons.

Trump is trying to show allies that the days of Obama’s policies are over. In Saudi Arabia, one of his aims is to reassure Sunni countries that the United States is deter­mined to take a tough line against Iran and to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.

Another likely goal is to ask for Arab support of an effort to breathe new life into the Israeli- Palestinian peace process. Trump, who has met with about half a dozen Middle Eastern leaders in Washington in separate talks in recent months, is ready to “take it one step up,” said Dan Arbell, a Middle East analyst at the Brook­ings Institution in Washington. Under a plan called the “outside-in” approach, the United States wants Arab countries to put pres­sure on the Palestinians to make peace with Israel.

The US president has said he wanted to be the one to close a peace deal for the Middle East. In February, Trump floated an idea to bring Israel and Arabs together in a grand bargain that would build on joint interests in fighting Ira­nian influence and jihadism and could open the door to an Israeli- Palestinian peace agreement. Such an accord would include “many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory,” Trump said.

The problem is that there is no consensus on who will move first to build trust. “Israel wants Arab support but the Arabs want Israel to do something before they ex­tend that support,” Arbell said. Now Trump was trying to square that circle. “He has got his work cut out for him. I am sceptical” about Trump’s chances for suc­cess, Arbell said.

One reason analysts are cautious about Trump’s efforts is due to his administration not yet present­ing a coherent plan for the Mid­dle East. “There is only a vague indication of a strategy,” Nathan Brown, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, said. Trump’s approach was “not quite clear,” he said.

The forthcoming trip could pro­vide some hints as to what Trump wants to achieve. During his visit to Israel and the Palestinian terri­tories on May 22, the US president is expected to push for new peace talks between the two sides. The London-based Al-Hayat newspa­per reported that Trump is plan­ning to announce the resumption of direct negotiations between Is­raeli Prime Minister Binyamin Ne­tanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a trilateral summit with the two leaders.

To give his new peace effort a chance, Trump will probably have to put his high-profile campaign pledge to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the back-burner. The relocation would anger Palestinians and Ar­abs and could erode the very trust that Trump is trying to build. “I think that he got the message from Arab leaders” that moving the em­bassy would not be a good idea at the moment, Arbell said.

The president’s own anti-Mus­lim rhetoric during last year’s elec­tion campaign and his efforts to ban citizens of several Muslim na­tions from travelling to the Unit­ed States present another set of challenges for Trump’s first Mid­dle East visit. So far, his hosts are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said during a recent visit to Washington that the presi­dent’s decision to travel to Riyadh was proof he was not anti-Muslim.

“It’s a clear and powerful mes­sage that the US harbours no ill will,” Jubeir said, according to news reports. The upcoming visit “lays to rest the notion that Amer­ica is anti-Muslim.”