With or without Trump, Arabs need reform
Conservative rulers in the Arab world should not look at US President Donald Trump’s Riyadh speech as just payback to the previous US administration’s approach in the region.
In Trump’s address, there was a big departure from the way the Obama administration did things in the Middle East. Former US President Barack Obama did not shy away from accusing both Iran and the Gulf states of supporting extremist groups. To the dismay of Arab Gulf rulers, he even saw potential in Iran. All that is gone.
In Riyadh, Trump joined his Saudi host, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, in pinning the blame on the Iranian regime for promoting terrorism and engaging in destabilising activities in the region.
King Salman said that the Gulf region had lived peacefully for the past 700-800 years. He pointed out that it wasn’t until Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini installed the Islamic Republic that Iran started to promote terrorism. “For decades, Iran has fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” King Salman said.
Saudi Arabia, as the centre of Sunni Islam, considers Iran a real threat and is fighting it by proxy in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. The Saudis have a lingering fear of the Persians’ desire to expand their influence across the region.
In his Riyadh speech, Trump delivered the final nail in the coffin of the “Arab spring” narrative, which had been long cherished by Obama.
“Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption,” Trump said.
Washington, he promised, would not attempt to impose the US way of life on the Arabs. “The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries and for their children,” he said. “It is a choice between two futures — and it is a choice America cannot make for you.”
Trump called for “reform” instead of the previous interventionist agendas, which were aimed at radical regime change in the region but contributed to a lot of the death and destruction since 2011. Considering the tragic fate that has befallen many of the Syrians, Libyans and others it was supposed to enfranchise, such activism did not produce much reason to celebrate.
Trump pledged that the United States would, in the future, “seek gradual reforms, not sudden intervention.”
Many of the Arab countries have serious reforms to engage. Without them, their young people might not have a chance at liberty, prosperity and hope. In these turbulent days, reform takes a particular urgency but reform is not synonymous with sitting on one’s hands and singing the praises of the past. Four years from now, Trump may or may not be in the White House. The young and restless Arab populations will still be there.
Middle East governments should be accountable to no one but their own citizens. They should also see the benefits of moving on. Not catching up with the world is not an option.
The Trump address to the Muslim world was also very different in tone from the Trump we heard on the campaign trail. The belligerence he carried throughout his presidential run against Muslims was gone. It was replaced by a more moderate discourse. This time, rather than talk about banning Muslims from landing at US airports, Trump sought partnerships and alliances with Muslim leaders.
A laudable development, provided that his moderate tone continues even in Washington and is not just a transactional pitch.