Donald Trump’s presidency is currently undergoing its most difficult stage yet at home. He is being chased by accusations of obstructing federal investigations into suspicious ties to Russia. He is being chased by campaigns accusing him of being unfit to be president. And he is being chased by powerful entities, preparing to take action towards impeaching him for allegedly undermining national security as well as obstructing justice.
His presidency is littered with gaping wounds that threaten his fate and reflect a popular anger over his repeated arbitrary episodes, dragging himself in one row after the other with the media and the intelligence community. In terms of his foreign relations, Trump finds himself the target of a rescue operation through the summit in Riyadh, which has mobilized Arab and Muslim leaders to demonstrate a practical and tangible will to launch a partnership, which would place Muslims in the front line of a new global front against radical Islamic terror led by the U.S.
This is Trump’s first foreign trip as president, and will include Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, with important religious and political implications. It is a working trip every stop of which has been meticulously prepared, beginning with Riyadh: There, three summits will convene, a US-Saudi, US-Gulf, and US-Arab-Islamic summit. These meetings will not be symbolic feasts and festivals. They are panels working on producing a new global front against terror, inaugurated by Donald Trump in 2017 just like the late President Harry Truman inaugurated the new global front against communism in 1948. If the Riyadh summit produces practical pledges in this direction, beyond participation in the financial burden and political statements, Riyadh could well become the foreign savior of Donald Trump from his domestic woes. If Trump is met with Arab and Islamic openness to an equation that would practically amend the Arab peace initiative on Israel and Palestine, the next stop of his tour could help him further extricate himself from that dangerous spiral threatening his presidency because of the alleged ties to Russia.
Interestingly, the Russian president Vladimir Putin has entered the fray, especially after allegations emerged Trump had shared classified information with the Russian minister Sergei Lavrov during their meeting in Washington last week. Putin attacked certain American ‘circles’ for their ‘political schizophrenia’. Those making such claims “either don’t understand that they are harming their own country, which means they are just dumb, or they understand everything and then they are dangerous and unscrupulous people,” he said, adding that they intend to incite “anti-Russian sentiment” and destabilize US politics.
Putin is right to worry about growing US suspicions of Russia, which has been accused from the start of meddling in US elections in favor of Trump, and then of infiltrating Trump’s campaigns through close associates of his such as Michael Flynn, Trump’s initial National Security Adviser before he had to fire him when it emerged he had lied as he was being investigated by the FBI. The issue has to do with national security, a sacrosanct matter for the Americans, and the message coming from Washington to the Kremlin, both from the media and the establishment, is that Russia will continue to be seen as an adversary as long as it continues to interfere with US politics.
More importantly, there is a message to Trump himself stating that the intelligence community and the media will not remain silent in the face of violations and blunders that threaten the checks and balances of the US system, the central nervous system of the US democracy that gives these institutions the right to inquire and pursue accountability. Trump’s sacking of FBI director James Comey further stoked the suspicions and outrage, especially after Comey claimed Trump had asked him to end the investigation into Flynn’s ties to Russia, according to the New York Times. The implicit suggestion was that Comey’s sacking was the result of the FBI director’s opposition to the request. The FBI is supposed to be above politics and party lines, and its independence must be respected by the president and Congress.
Reacting to the US Department of Justice appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special counsel into the Russian investigation, Trump said: “”As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know - there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity.” But those who believe otherwise have accused Trump of obstructing the investigation, with many drawing attention to similarities between Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and a similar foreign tour by the late President Richard at the height of the investigations that eventually led to his impeachment, without his foreign policy feats being able to save him.
The leaders receiving Trump in Riyadh are well aware of this. However, this has not affected their decision to invest in the US president, who is bringing new policies different from those of his predecessor Barack Obama, whose appeasement of Iran had driven a wedge with the US’ traditional allies.
Trump has made an about face from his campaign attitudes on two levels now: First, Trump has restored the US role, commitments, and security guarantees to the heart of the Arab region through the Gulf gateway, especially Saudi Arabia, sending out reassurances that the US is no longer locked in embrace with Iran, as the Gulf impression held during Obama’s tenure. Second, Donald Trump the candidate had led a campaign against Muslims and Islam, which the Muslim world had understood as a message of absolute and irreversible hostility. But now, Donald Trump the president has made a distinguished move towards the Islamic world, differentiating between moderate Islam and fundamental terrorism, and building a coalition with Muslims to fight this terror.
The Arab-Islamic-American summit in Riyadh may develop mechanisms for this coalition to eliminate ISIS and similar groups in Syria and Iraq, especially in Raqqa and Mosul. However, this coalition has broader goals because terrorism is bigger than just ISIS. Mechanisms for the coalition to confront Iran’s proxies in the Arab countries is another important subject in the discussions in Riyadh, with the Trump administration resolved to head off Iran’s incursions in Arab countries, though not necessarily through direct military means.
At the level of the bilateral summit between King Salman and President Trump, there are new important rules to consider. Saudi Arabia is no longer that calm state, as one veteran Gulf figure said, but has become a pre-emptive power, taking the initiative and reshaping itself politically, economically, technologically, and militarily in fulfilment of the Vision 2030. The summit has also drawn leading business executives from both countries, who will meet in a separate event that the Saudi government has purposefully asked Lubna Al Alian to co-chair to highlight its newfound openness to women at work. The summit will cement the future economic interlinkage in a sort of marriage of interests between the two countries’ private sectors, which again could reflect positively on the US president and help him domestically.
As regards the Gulf-American summit, it is clear that the GCC counties are proceeding on two tracks, especially in terms of security. First, there is a bilateral track, such as the UAE-US defense cooperation. Second, there is a collective track involving the six Gulf countries together and the US. The positions of these countries are not always identical, and are sometimes conflicting or competing. The UAE today is active in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, while Qatar, as another example, is focusing on Sudan, Libya, and Syria. Oman is interested in good relations with Iran. And for Saudi Arabia the priority is Yemen, followed by Syria and Sudan.
The tensions between the president and important pillars of the US establishment are a source of concern for Gulf leaders, but they have not dissuaded them from betting on Trump. These countries have become accustomed to the instability in the relations with the US under successive administrations, and they have decided nonetheless that there is no other choice but to invest in Trump’s presidency.
What is also unclear, in both ways, has to do with the question of whether the Muslim nations are willing to pay a hefty cost for the desired coalition, or whether they have the ability to participate in a pan-Islamic coalition to fight radical terror. In the other direction, can the US president not just survive but also convince the public opinion at home of the new global front he is mobilizing, which will also have a cost? In other words, can Saudi Arabia guarantee the survival of the Islamic alliance and can Donald Trump deliver from his side?
King Salman, through determination to fight terrorism, has been able to forge important alliances, including with the US. This is something that Barack Obama could not do. It is Donald Trump’s achievement that will characterize his three summits in Riyadh. But the litmus test will be in the hotspots in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya, as well as Palestine. Yet the most important test for Trump is back home, though this time, a lifeline is being given to him from abroad.