Trump in Saudi: Good Performance, Bad Foreign Policy

Donald Trump and wife spent the weekend in Saudi Arabia, a destination which probably wouldn’t be the weekend destination for many couples the world over. For Trump, it was a bold move, given that he has repeatedly bashed Muslims in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. It seemed a bit like a KKK Grand Wizard going into a black church in Chicago. Yet, Trump navigated his first trip abroad as President comfortably. Everything went according to plan, for once, and he didn’t spurt too much on Twitter. Massive deals were signed and he gave a speech in front of an audience of Muslim leaders, which he managed to do without sounding patronizing. Probably the highlight of an awful presidency so far.

Trump gave a maestro performance. However, he is the spokesperson for a short-sighted foreign policy. Trump made abundantly clear that he supported the Saudi-Egypt alliance which is fighting a rearguard action against Islamism. This position was reinforced by castigating Iran in terms which will prick ears in Teheran.

What is the problem with this foreign policy, which differs so greatly from the largely enlightened direction (at least towards Iran) taken by Barack Obama and John Kerry? Trump has hitched his star to two governments in the Middle East which enjoy little credibility. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Saudi deserves credit for the way it has managed itself in the world. Many countries possess a plenitude of material resources like Saudi, but haven’t been able to progress and been prone to rash decision-making. At the same time, are Saudi the future of the Middle East? They seem more like a cat with nine lives.

Someone like Kerry likely understood that – like it or loath it – Iran is going to play a part in Mid-East politics for a longer time than Saudi Arabia or Egypt’s military dictatorship. Like Turkey, Iran is blending the modern with the traditional. It is open to the world, but not at any price. This wins it broad legitimacy. Of the GCC countries, Qatar also follows this path. Unlike Turkey and Iran, Qatar is sparsely populated, and the sheer weight of numbers makes Turkey and Iran the long-term regional players.

By honouring Saudi Arabia in the way he did, Trump has given it a security guarantee which will be difficult to redeem. Nonetheless, Saudi probably doesn’t have a free enough academic and political environment for there to be an Iranian-style revolution. However, the other favourite of Trump’s has the ingredients for such a dramatic change of power. Egypt could easily fall prey to any Shah-like overthrow. Trump’s open support for Sisi will only accelerate this process, and this will have consequences for Saudi.

The reasonable policy of the Obama administration has been ditched. Trump gave it his best over the weekend, but Saudi and the Egyptian military are ill-equipped to deal with changes which inevitably will occur in the Middle East. Another domino of American power is likely to give way. Saudi and Egypt may fit in with Trump’s way of viewing the world, but will the world return the favour in kind? Trump may be seen in years to come as the unwitting mid-wife of the future Middle East.


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