In his first foreign trip, President Trump addressed the Muslim world in a speech that covers a wide range of issues (Iran, Islamic violence, Islam, and the Middle East). Yet, Muslims around the world still remember the then candidate Trump’s harsh rhetoric about Islam: “I think Islam hates us.”
The irony: Muslims are perplexed to hear the president say that Islam is one of the world’s great faiths.
The president’s speech was met with low expectations throughout the Muslim world given his lack of credibility, garbled messages, and inconsistencies. But I will not focus on the president’s speech. In my opinion, it lacks cohesiveness and jumps from one topic to another.
One thing’s certain: The president’s speech in Riyadh was not about the Muslim world and its ongoing chaos. It was mainly aimed at Iran.
Saudi Arabia played its political card well by using President Trump to deliver what is essentially the kingdom’s message to Iran. What Mr. Trump failed to highlight is the importance of democracy and the rule of law. He failed to stir the Muslim world from its stagnation and its chaotic state of affairs, to engagement with the world. At the same time, are Muslims so naïve to think that conflicts and chaos will resolve themselves? The answer is no. The Muslim community around the world needs to wake up to the reality of how the rest of the world perceives it. Imams and religious clerics who take to the platform to deliver fiery sermons pretending to be victims while using the stage to instigate hatred toward others, mainly Jews and Christians, need to reconsider their understanding and interpretation of Islam.
Many Muslims are asking why President Trump overlooked the Saudis’ need to rein in Wahhabism and limit its extremist interpretation of Islam. One need look no further than Claude Moniquet, of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC) in Belgium, who argues that the role Wahhabist ideology plays a pivotal role in forming and funding jihadi groups.
President Trump missed the opportunity to discuss the need for the Muslim world to allow freedom of expression. He failed to share his thoughts on how to further the conversation and build better societies. Of interest is the detention of Raif Badawi, 33, a Saudi activist who has been in prison in the kingdom since 2012, serving a 10-year sentence for creating a blog/forum dubbed “Free Saudi Liberals Network.” Mr. Badawi was also sentenced to 1,000 lashes. I understand that we cannot and should not dictate to other countries how to conduct their internal affairs. But turning a blind eye to basic democratic ideals such as freedom of expression sends the wrong message to the rest of the world. It says, as an ally, we will continue to ignore the atrocities you commit and pretend that it’s business as usual.
What surprises me, in addition to Mr. Trump’s naivety, is his lashing out at Iran on behalf of the desert kingdom. At least Iran, despite its spotty record on democracy, recently ran fair elections and reelected its moderate president, Rouhani, to a second term. The Saudis will never experience democracy like that in action.
It would have been useful for President Trump to address the core issues and grievances that the Muslim world is dealing with—lack of opportunities, high unemployment, almost nonexistent democratic infrastructure, the need to modernize the education system, etc. But he did not, to his discredit.
As to the $110 billion arms sales to the kingdom President Trump signed, it could not come at a worse time as Iranian voters expressed through the ballot box their desire to join the international community. In light of this arms deal, Iran is bound to purchase weapons from the likes of Russia and China to defend itself against the weapons being stockpiled by its Sunni enemies.
Bravo Present Trump for starting an arms race in the Middle East!
It will be interesting to see whether President Trump will deliver on something else the Saudis are very interested in: the repeal of a contentious 2016 law that allows relatives of 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom for their deaths.
As I argue in my forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: the Hidden Truth, when putting together all the problems in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, more than ever, looks politically vulnerable. Despite the hype about President Trump’s recent trip there, the kingdom’s dependence on the United States for its survival for the last 70 years seems to be near an end.
Where from here? The United States is no longer in a position to play its traditional role as the sole guarantor of Middle East stability. That means America needs to make some hard choices, namely, whether to continue its support for Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of oil, the place of Islam’s holiest sites, and a country equally bountiful in advanced American weapons and irate Wahhabi Sunni Muslims.