On his first trip abroad since his inauguration, President Trump is on an eight-day tour of the Middle East before going to Brussels in Belgium. He chose Saudi Arabia as the first country to visit in his Presidency – much to the pleasure of the Saudi royal family, whose head King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud pulled out all the stops to welcome the new president. The Saudis were not especially keen on his predecessor, President Obama, whom they regarded as weak. President Trump, they believe, is a man much more to their liking – most notably as he talks tough on terrorism. This is ironic, as President Trump has before now criticised Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorism and for masterminding the terrorists attacks on 9/11 in the United States. He has also, since the election, said that Saudi Arabia should be banned from selling oil to the United States and criticised the country for killing gay people and for its treatment of women. In a Gallup poll, Americans said that Saudi Arabia was one of the most disliked countries in the world.
The Saudis, however, seem happy for now with President Trump. The media described his visit as “transformative” and would turn around its “relationship of tension to a strategic partnership,” or even a “reset of regional order.” Some officials, however, are a little more cautious, with one ministerial aide remarking: “He is a businessman and he wants to get things done, which is good for us. But a lot of this is driven by his personal conviction. Who’s to say that if he goes the next leader won’t do what he is doing to Obama and unwind everything?”
The President certainly seems to be using the trip to continue and reinforce the relationship the United States and the West has fostered with Saudi Arabia, despite their continuing condemnations of the country’s human rights record. While in Riyadh yesterday, the Saudi king presented the President with a gold medal, the Collar of Abdelaziz Saud, which is the country’s highest civilian award. President Trump gratefully accepted the honour and bowed in appreciation before the king – something President Obama also did in 2012 and for which he was criticised by Donald Trump. The Collar of Abdelaziz Saud is named after the founder of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia who began the West’s questionable relationship with the kingdom when he signed a deal with the United States giving control of their oilfields to American countries. Oil was the making of the modern Saudi Arabia and it is oil, and the lucrative arms deals, that keeps the West in thrall to the Saudi royal family.
This shows no signs of changing under the presidency of Mr Trump who yesterday signed the largest arms deal in history when the Saudis signed a $110 billion arms deal with the United States – which could increase to $380 billion in the next ten years. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer described the deal as positive news for American employment and the economy. At his @presssec Twitter feed he tweeted: ”Beyond $109b in military sales, @potus deal w US & Saudi Arabia incs another $250b commercial investment creating hundreds of 1000s US jobs.” However the deal has generated opposition and criticism around the world. Furthermore, with Mr Trump’s previous comments on Saudi Arabia it can be interpreted as hypocritical on his part to now be signing arms deals with the the regime he said masterminded the 9/11 attacks.
A White House statement said of the deal: “This package demonstrates, in the clearest terms possible, the United States’ commitment to our partnership with Saudi Arabia and our Gulf partners, while also expanding opportunities for American companies in the region, and supporting tens of thousands of new jobs in the US defence industrial base.”
Saudi Arabia is currently leading an intervention in the Yemeni civil war, resulting in airstrikes, bombing and a naval blockade and deployment of ground troops. The West has largely backed the Saudi intervention, not only with the continuing sales of arms but with intelligence and the use of military personnel in the command and control centre used for airstrikes against Yemen. The Saudi intervention follows from a Houthi take over of the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi who had won unopposed an election in 2012. The Houthi take over of the government by 2015 was backed by the Iranian government, which Saudi Arabia is opposed to. Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi fled to Aden in southern Yemen and declared there had been a coup against him. The Saudis began building up forces on the border with Yemen as fighting continued inside Yemen and the Houthi commanders threatened to extend their fighting into Saudi Arabia. At this point the United Nations were supporting the elected Yemeni government of Hadi and authorised “willing countries that wish to help Yemen to provide immediate support for the legitimate authority by all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter the Houthi aggression.” The Yemeni government requested help from the Arab League and Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia’s intervention began. It has intensified since and continues to this day. You can read more about it on Wikipedia.
It is hard to calculate how many civilians alone have died in the Yemen conflict. As of January this year, according to the United Nations, at least 10,000 have been killed and a further 40,000 injured. As a consequence of the civil war and the the interventions by Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations, which includes a naval blockade on imports, the country is on the verge of famine. None of this was seemingly concerning Donald Trump or his administration yesterday when they signed their staggeringly huge arms deal with the kingdom. Many of those weapons, of course, will be deployed in Yemen where they will continue to add to the suffering of the people. Amnesty International condemned the lack of discussion of human rights on the Trump agenda in Riyadh, calling it a “glaring omission.” The group also called for the US to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia which are being used to carry out airstrikes on civilians in Yemen. The executive directory of Amnesty International USA said:
“This brazen disregard for human rights and humanitarian law will only serve to further embolden states in the Gulf and around the globe in their pursuit of ‘security’ at the expense of people’s basic rights.”
Meanwhile, Kristine Beckerle, of Human Rights Watch, suggests that this new arms deal opens up US officials to be possibility of being legally liable for “aiding and abetting coalition war crimes”.
On Monday and Tuesday Mr Trump will be in Israel and the West Bank to discuss peace deals! The thought of Donald Trump negotiating peace in itself seems ludicrous, but in light of the fact that he has just signed multi-billion dollar deals to sell more arms to Saudi Arabia, which could be used at some point against Israel, makes it just insane. The United States repeatedly claims Israel is one of its closest allies, but sells arms to its enemies and relies so much on those arms deals and on Saudi oil that it raises the dilemma of which country would it support if conflict between Israel and Saudi Arabia broke out?
In extracts of a speech the President will make later today at the Arab Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh he is to speak about the battle between good and evil and will call for unity against extremism. In the speech, said to be written by Stephen Miller who was the architect of Trump’s failed Muslim ban, he will speak out against attacks on Christians, as well as on Muslims and Jews. Meanwhile, President Trump has signed a resolution with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreeing to not finance terrorism and to prosecute those who do. The resolution was also signed by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Mr Trump does not outline any measures to combat extremism, using the terms “terror” and “terrorists” but deliberately avoiding the term “Islamic terrorism.” This was something he has previously criticised his opponents for, but in his planned speech he will focus on the term “extremism” instead. Here are some of the extracts released:
“And it means standing together against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews, and the slaughter of Christians.”
“Religious leaders must make this absolutely clear: Barbarism will deliver you no glory – piety to evil will bring you no dignity. If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and your soul will be condemned.”
“We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes, not inflexible ideology…We will seek gradual reforms, not sudden intervention. […] But the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them.”
“We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all. […] But we can only overcome this evil if the forces of good are united and strong – and if everyone in this room does their fair share and fulfils their part of the burden.”
Despite his calls for unity his visit to the Middle East and the speech follow his controversial Muslim ban, which would have prevented Muslims from six named Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The ban ran into trouble with the courts in the US but Trump has said that he still wishes to introduce it and that the threat of extremists entering the country is great, thus justifying the ban. Interestingly, none of the countries who co-signed the GCC resolution today – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are on the Muslim ban list of countries – Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya. Trump’s call for unity among Arab nations in the fight against “extremism” will no doubt prove difficult to succeed given that the United States and the West treat some Arab nations far better than others and because the Arab nations are far from capable of uniting on anything – except often their hatred and distrust of the United States and Israel.
Updates on speech and a video to follow tomorrow…
Sources & Further Reading:
- Donald Trump awarded with Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian honour within hours of landing in the country – 20 May 2017 – independent.co.uk– by Alexandra Wilts in Washington DC
- Donald Trump signs $110 billion arms deal with nation he accused of masterminding 9/11 – 21 May 2017 – independent.co.uk – by Rachel Revesz
- Donald Trump appears to ‘curtsey’ to Saudi king after mocking Barack Obama for bowing – 21 May 2017 – independent.co.uk – by Alexandra Wilts in Washington DC
- Donald Trump on tour: neither as scary nor as heroic as he has been painted – 20 May 2017 – independent.co.uk – Editorial
- Saudi leaders hail Trump visit as ‘reset of regional order’ – 20 May 2017 – guardian.com – Martin Chulov in Riyadh
- Trump to Reach Out to Muslim World After Harsh Campaign Rhetoric – 21 May 2017 – nytimes.com – Peter Barker and Michael D Shear
- Donald Trump calls for Middle East nations to battle between ‘good and evil’ of Islamic extremism – 21 May 2017 – independent.co.uk – by Rachel Revesz
- Donald Trump praises Egypt President al-Sisi and plans trip to Cairo – 21 May 2017 – independent.co.uk – by Rachel Revesz
- Donald Trump’s speech on Islam being drafted by ‘Muslim ban’ architect Stephen Miller – 18 May 2017 – independent.co.uk – by Samuel Osborne