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Foreign Policy

Symbolism and Substance in Trump’s Visit to Middle East

Jun 05 , 2017
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US President Donald Trump departed on his first foreign trip on May 20, four months after taking office. Unlike previous US presidents, who usually went to neighboring Canada or Mexico first, Trump went to the Middle East, the anti-terrorist frontline and region of mixed conflicts. By visiting Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine, Trump drew a strategic blueprint in the Middle East with both substantive and symbolic moves.

First, US military enterprises will make big money in the multi-billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and US alliances with Saudi and Israel were further consolidated, establishing a new strategic layout centering on these two countries for the Middle East. In the eight years of the Obama administration, these two US allies had drifted away from the alliances as the US had a diplomatic détente with Iran, the long-term enemy of both countries, and went all out to push for a nuclear deal with Tehran. Iran, on the other hand, had greatly improved its international situation and domestic economic environment with the nuclear deal and gradually expanded its regional influence though joint actions with Russia in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars (and with the Houthi armed group in the latter).
Increased Iranian and Russian influence in the Middle East on the one hand and the Obama administration’s attempts to pull out of the region on the other profoundly upset Saudi Arabia and Israel. They are both eager to have more security assurances and expect Trump to correct the previous administration’s policy. Trump, a businessman by nature, will certainly not give without taking. Now a $110-billion arms contract has been inked, with a follow-up package worth $350 billion in coming decade. This tangible business contract will not only create more jobs for American military enterprises and Americans but also will reactivate the US-Saudi alliance and transfer more security responsibilities to regional allies. Saudi also plans to invest an additional $40 billion in the US, which may create another 4 million jobs for Americans in the fields of new technologies, energy and industries.
Furthermore, the establishment of Saudi Arabia as the axis of regional allies represented another important step by Trump in his new strategy for the Middle East. During his visit to Saudi Arabia, three summit meetings were held, US-Saudi, US-GCC (headed by Saudi) and the Arab Islamic American Summit (with over 50 heads of Arab Islamic countries convened by the Saudi). Saudi Arabia was at the center of all three, like the center of three concentric circles, each larger than the previous one. The creation of these concentric circles establishes and consolidates Saudi’s position as the ‘axis’, and it also helps to improve US relations with the Islamic world, repairing President Trump’s image in Muslim countries — which had been hurt by his campaign statements and his ‘Muslim ban’ after taking office. Further, it boosts anti-terrorist cooperation and lays out a foundation for developing an ‘Arab NATO’ centering on Saudi Arabia and US leadership in the Middle East and the world at large.
Unlike the fruitful trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump’s visit to Israel and Palestine and his statement on Israel/Palestine had more symbolic value than practical significance. While meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House, the US President spoke carelessly in support of the one-state solution. Now he is supporting the two-state solution. He promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem during his first days in office but did not say a single word about it on this visit. He openly criticized the UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements not long ago, but this time he simply urged Israel to exercise restraint. These changes suggest that the new president has gradually realized the complexity of the Israel/Palestine question and is attempting to strike a balance. On the other hand, he is apparently still learning, as well as fine-tuning his Middle East policy. Therefore, he is unable to produce any real plan for now. The visit to these two countries was at best a show of humanitarian concern and political will, with little substantive result.
It is worth mentioning that when Trump started his Middle East tour, the Iranian presidential election came to an end. The re-election of reformist President HassanRouhani, who endorsed the nuclear deal, should be an important positive factor for relaxation of US-Iran relations. While the Trump administration repeatedly accuses Iran of missile tests and increases sanctions, its policy of wooing Saudi Arabia and Israel and reactivating strategic alliances with the two countries to counter Iran is in embryo but far from taking shape.


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