That the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia, is the first foreign nation that Trump will visit as president couldn’t be more pregnant with irony. The Sunni kingdom is the first stop on his Abrahamic faiths tour, which also includes Israel and a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Echoing the naïve platitudes of many a beauty pageant contestant that he’s heard over the years, “Trump is seeking is to unite peoples of all faiths around a common vision of peace, progress, and prosperity,” according to national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster. More specifically, the embattled American president seeks greater unity and cooperation in the fight against Islamist extremism, namely IS and Al Qaeda. Addressing the graduates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Trump said he’d seek new partners in the Middle East because “we have to stop radical Islamic terrorism.”
While he sparred with Pope Francis during his campaign and has been slow to condemn increasing acts of Anti-Semitism in the U.S., Trump’s invective against the fastest-growing world religion and his Muslim travel ban have earned him some serious Islamophobe credentials. Most notoriously while on the campaign trail in March 2016 he said, “I think Islam hates us. There’s a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us.” Such Islamophobia helped consolidate his support among many white Evangelicals who tend to view IS and Islam as one in the same. Many Evangelicals will be pleased to know that Stephen Miller, the architect of the Muslim travel ban, is drafting Trump’s speech on Islam.
So how is it that the card-carrying Islamophobe is not only making the cradle of Islam the first stop on his maiden voyage abroad but also will give the Saudis an “inspiring yet direct” speech on his “peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world”? The answer, of course, lies in the complex geopolitics of the Middle East. Historically, the oil-rich kingdom has been a key member of the trilateral group of U.S. allies in the conflicted region, along with Israel and Turkey, which has been less cooperative lately.
Relations with all three countries deteriorated under the Obama administration, and Trump, despite his jabs at the Saudis on the campaign trail, is seeking to repair relations with a country that purchases more American weapons than any other. In fact, during his visit there Trump will announce a new arms deal worth $100 billion now and probably amounting to some $300 billion over the next ten years.
As the region’s Sunni power broker, Saudi Arabia serves two main American interests in the Middle East. First and foremost the kingdom serves as a counterbalance to archenemy Iran, whose nuclear ambitions are perceived as a major threat both by Israel and the U.S. On one level, the conflict in Syria is a proxy war between the Sunni and Shia regional power brokers, with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah joining the Russians in propping up the brutal Assad regime while Saudi Arabia supports Sunni factions seeking to overthrow the Syrian tyrant.
Almost as important as containing Iran is Trump’s campaign pledge to defeat IS. If any one nation has been the source of Islamist extremism it’s Saudi Arabia, home to fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers and Osama bin Laden and his influential extended family. Though the Saudi royal family itself is in the crosshairs of IS, Wahhabi extremists within the kingdom continue to support radical Islamism throughout the Muslim world and beyond.
Recent campaigns against IS in both Syria and Iraq have dealt the apocalyptic group some serious setbacks in their efforts to expand the “Caliphate,” but Trump realizes that the ultimate defeat of radical Islamism, especially the Sunni variety, depends heavily on Saudi cooperation. As Trump, the loose cannon, prepares to take a break from the scandals at home that call into question the legitimacy of his presidency, let’s hope he sticks to the script as he makes the case for Muslim and Abrahamic unity against violent extremism.