“From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,” said the president (omitting the fact that most jihadists in the Middle East are Sunni, not Shia).
Forgotten, it seems, are his tweets calling them “cowards” and his Facebook post likening them to slaveholders. The people of Saudi Arabia, not least the royal family, seem to care only about what Donald Trump is saying now. And while Candidate Trump taunted the Saudis, President Trump has embraced them, making the kingdom his first foreign destination. In Riyadh, the capital, on May 20th-21st, he sought to reassure Muslim leaders and draw a sharp contrast with Barack Obama’s foreign policy.
The centrepiece of the trip was a speech by Mr Trump to dozens of Sunni Muslim leaders, which his staff billed as an answer to Mr Obama’s address in Cairo in 2009. In their own way, both presidents sought to reset America’s relations with the Muslim world. But whereas Mr Obama attempted to mend the damage wrought by the war in Iraq, Mr Trump was burdened by his own Islamophobic rhetoric. “I think Islam hates us,” said Mr Trump last year, after calling for a blanket ban on Muslims entering America. His first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, considered Islam a “malignant cancer”.
Autocrats and dictators must have short memories, because Mr Trump’s appeal to fight extremism, which he now says is “not a battle between different faiths”, but “between good and evil”, seemed to go down well in Riyadh. Perhaps it helped that the president did not push his audience on their generally poor human-rights records, which many analysts think contribute to terrorism. Such hounding was more the way of Mr Obama (who addressed university students in 2009 and firmly stood up for human rights). “We are not here to lecture,” said Mr Trump. “We are not here to tell other people…what to do.”
The president then told his audience what to do. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” said Mr Trump. “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists.” “Drive them out,” he repeated, five times. To that end, Mr Trump announced the sale of “beautiful” weapons worth $110bn to Saudi Arabia, the opening of the Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh and the creation of a Terrorist Financing Targeting Centre.
No doubt delighting his hosts, and fuelling the sectarian divide within Islam, Mr Trump blamed Iran, which is predominantly Shia, for most of the region’s problems. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,” said the president (omitting the fact that most jihadists in the Middle East are Sunni, not Shia). A day earlier, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, even condemned Iran’s human-rights record, which is not notably worse than Saudi Arabia’s. That brief lecture took place only hours after the Iranians re-elected Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as their president (see article).
The frequent criticism of Iran was just one way in which Mr Trump and his hosts sought to underscore how different things are under the new administration. Just two years ago, Mr Obama engaged with Mr Rouhani to complete a deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. This realignment upset the Saudis, who gave Mr Obama a cool welcome on his final visit to the kingdom in 2016. By contrast, when Mr Trump stepped off Air Force One, he was greeted by King Salman in a lavish ceremony featuring military jets casting red, white and blue contrails.
But the changes have been in style more than substance. Mr Trump has not ripped up the nuclear agreement with Iran and, like Mr Obama, said he would avoid “sudden interventions” in the region. Moreover, “Obama was pretty good to [the Saudis],” says Thomas Lippman of the Middle East Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC. He visited the kingdom more times and sold the Saudis more weapons than any other American president before him. In fact, many of the arms deals celebrated by Mr Trump were negotiated under his predecessor, who also provided intelligence support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Next, Mr Trump heads to Israel, where the dynamics at times will be similar those of his Saudi trip. Mr Trump will visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial centre, perhaps to counter accusations of anti-Semitism against some in his administration, after a failure to mention Jews in a statement commemorating the Holocaust earlier this year. The president also plans to propose a path to the “ultimate” peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. Some may doubt his ability to end the decades-long conflict, but in Riyadh, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, described Mr Trump as “a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible”—to which Mr Trump responded, “I agree.”