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Trump should clarify his anti-Muslim position during his trip to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (L) meets US President Donald Trump (R) at the White House in Washington, United States on 14 March, 2017 [Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency]
Saudi Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (L) meets US President Donald Trump (R) at the White House in Washington, United States on 14 March, 2017 [Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency]

At the end of his tenure as the President of the United States, Barack Obama gave a stunning warning about Donald Trump’s election campaign promises. Its gist was that the Republican candidate would soon face a sobering reality check on his most controversial policies.

President Trump has already reneged on many campaign promises, shifting and softening his position on NATO and China, for example. During a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House, Trump told journalists, “I said NATO was obsolete, it is no longer obsolete.” After suggesting a “relook” at the One China policy, he invited President Xi Jinping to the White House and has sent senior diplomats to China in an attempt to clarify the US position and improve relations.

The sobering reality check continues daily, prompting his trusted advisor Kellyanne Conway to come up with innovative spin to get him out of his self-made mess. It was Conway who came up with the notion of “alternative facts” to minimise the PR damage to the Trump presidency. According to Trump’s team, there are essentially two types of “facts”; those that were uttered during the presidential campaign and those uttered by the president afterwards. Any of the former which contradict the latter are annulled; presidential utterances take precedence. Controversial at best, this has affected public trust in politics under Trump in the US.

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Donald Trump’s election campaign was built on two controversial promises: he would build a wall along the US border with Mexico; and institute a blanket ban on Muslims going to America, “until we know exactly what the hell is going on”. Neither has yet seen the light of day. In fact, a somewhat different ban has replaced the latter, with Muslims coming from a selected number of Muslim countries being prohibited from entering the US. Trump claims that the strategy was inherited from the Obama administration.

Having passed his first 100 days in office, it has been announced that Trump will make his first visit as president to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia next week. The decision to visit a Muslim state is contrary to expectations; that it is the home of Islam’s holiest places in Makkah and Madinah and the religious epicentre of the people he wanted to ban from the US has perplexed many observers. Furthermore, “Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia will include a bilateral summit,” explained Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, “a meeting with Arab Gulf leaders and another with leaders of Arab and Muslim countries.”

The choice of Saudi Arabia as his first state visit adds to the confusion that is America’s foreign policy toward the Middle East. Those who voted for Trump can be forgiven for interpreting this as a betrayal of the political mandate they thought that they were voting for; he did, after all, use inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric to help him to win the presidency.

Read: Possible Trump trip to Saudi Arabia being discussed

Notwithstanding what was said about Muslims during the election campaign, though, Trump is warming up to certain leaders in the region. Government-to-government interactions have been cordial and there are a number of ongoing economic negotiations between the US and countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Moreover, the improved cooperation between Israel, certain Arab states and the US against Iran has added to the regional political complications.

The fear amongst many in the Middle East is that such cooperation will normalise relations with Israel despite its continued violations of human rights and military occupation of Palestine. This is an important issue that Trump’s meeting with Arab leaders in Riyadh needs to address. What’s more, the US president should also explain how Arab and Muslim leaders are expected to respond to the anti-Muslim rhetoric in America. How can they address Trump’s support for right-wing politicians in Europe who have heightened anti Muslim sentiments across the continent? Trump’s presidential campaign utilised a number of anti-Muslim stances, so his visit to Saudi Arabia presents an opportunity for him to rebuild the trust that has been shattered.

At the very least, the Arab and Muslim leadership must insist on some sort of reconciliatory sound bite from President Trump while he is in the kingdom. It must contain a message upon which grassroots confidence in the continued relationship with the US can be built. Failure to do so could further widen the mistrust between the regional governments and their citizens, many of whom believe that their leaders give much more than they get from Washington. A lot of hopes are pinned on the July visit to Saudi as an opportunity for global Muslim concerns about the US to be addressed; clarity on such matters is imperative if progress and stability is to result.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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