US leader's visit to Saudi Arabia looks routine but is loaded with signals and subliminal messages that make it all but so
While significant, Trump’s move might not spring out of his belief that Riyadh tops the list of Washington’s allies. The choice of Saudi Arabia might not even be Trump’s, but rather that of his actual top international ally, Israel.
For a while now, Israeli officials -- including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- have been pushing the narrative that Tel Aviv secretly maintains relations with Gulf capitals. The Israelis argue that fear of their common enemy, Iran, has brought the Israelis and Gulf Arabs closer together.
Israelis, and their friends in Washington, hope to build on their presumed secret relations with some Gulf capitals to sign peace treaties, like those Israel has with Egypt and Jordan.
Trump’s son-in-law and top advisor on Arab-Israeli peace, Jared Kushner, has been quoted as saying that his approach to achieving peace between Arabs and Israelis is built on reversing the tactics that have been employed in peace talks so far but yielded little to no results.
Kushner and his cohorts argue that Arab-Israeli peace talks have been based on an “inside-out” approach, which means to achieve peace between the Israelis and Palestinians first, then move on to establish treaties between Israel and the rest of the Arab countries.
Kushner believes that his approach will be “from the outside-in,” that is, to sign peace treaties between Arab countries and Israel, then use the generated goodwill and new diplomatic relations to push for Palestinian-Israeli peace.
Needless to say, 36-year-old Kushner is a novice in international politics. There is a reason why Arab countries, especially those in the Gulf who have never been in an official state of war with Israel, have held out so far on peace until after the Palestinians sign first.
In the Arab mind, Israel craves peace and normalization with its Arab neighbors, and signing deals is a prize for the Israelis and a concession from Arabs. Arabs have always used potentially normal relations with Israel as leverage and have promised the Israelis that, should they arrive at a peace treaty that the Palestinians think is fair, then the Arabs will reward Tel Aviv with an all-out peace arrangement.
The reverse of the old approach means that, by signing peace deals with Tel Aviv before the Palestinians do, the Arabs will be throwing their Palestinian brethren under the bus.
With Israel winning the “peace with all the Arabs” reward, it will have no incentive to cater for Palestinian demands, and it will thus leave Palestinians living under their current miserable conditions.
Like Trump -- who presumably reads nothing and knows very little about history -- Kushner seems to be unaware of the past that dominates the dynamics of Arab-Israeli peace. Perhaps Kushner thinks that he has beaten everyone to coming up with what he thinks is an innovative idea that no one had thought of before.
Along the lines of building Israeli-Gulf relations, and perhaps as a way of signaling that if Gulf countries -- first and foremost Saudi Arabia -- should sign peace treaties with Israel before the Palestinians do, Riyadh should expect royal treatment from Washington.
Trump making Riyadh the destination of his first foreign visit is only a preview of the good things that will happen to Arab Gulf states should they dance to Kushner’s tune, or so the planners of the visit think.
And since Trump will be in Riyadh on May 22, when he will hold a meeting with King Salman, to be followed by a meeting with the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the U.S. president will grasp the opportunity to take care of other business, such as signing some lucrative arms deals that can keep American arms factories, and thus American jobs, going.
Also, while in Riyadh, President Trump will talk regional politics. Since the U.S. president, who has little to no vision on world issues, has delegated his foreign policy almost completely to the Israelis, he will tell his Saudi hosts that their dreams have come true, and that unlike former President Barack Obama, Washington is now changing position on Iran and putting it back up to the top of its list of enemies.
So while President Trump will update GCC leaders on the war on Daesh in Iraq and Syria, he will also inform them that Iran is back on America’s black list, and that Washington will revive its effort to criminalize and put pressure on all of Iran’s allies -- first and foremost Lebanon’s Hezbollah -- to counter Iran’s activity in the region.
Finally, there is a chance that Trump will also tell GCC leaders that Washington plans to go after Islamist parties around the world, even those that have no ties to Daesh or al-Qaeda.
On his first public appearance during a Senate hearing for his approval as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration would endorse a policy that would hunt down all terrorists and terrorist groups.
Tillerson naturally referred to Daesh, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. Unexpectedly, however, Tillerson added the Muslim Brotherhood to the terrorism mix, even though it is not on the U.S. List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO).
For America to treat the Brotherhood as an FTO, which allows Washington to impose sanctions on the group and its members, a number of U.S. federal agencies have to complete a process that assesses the group’s activities and whether it can be considered terrorist. Without such classification, the Trump administration cannot combat the Brotherhood.
Perhaps the Trump team will try to place it on America’s FTO list. But until that happens, Trump might try to make common cause with his Gulf hosts against the Brotherhood, which is considered terrorist by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., but not by Kuwait, Qatar or Oman.
From Riyadh, Trump will fly to Israel, where he will visit the historic site of Masada, just to the south of the West Bank, in a territory that Israelis consider to have once been part of the historic Jewish kingdom of Judea.
When Trump gives his speech there, he would have gone closest to where a U.S. president can go in the West Bank without visiting Palestinians, a clear signal that Trump supports the radical Israeli line of conquering the whole of the West Bank, and displacing Palestinians, as part of rebuilding the historic Israel.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia looks routine, but it is loaded with signals and subliminal messages that make it all but so.