All eyes on Trump when he delivers speech to Muslim world

RIYADH • United States President Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia has been labelled an opportunity for Riyadh and Washington to rebuild ties which have strained under the Obama administration.

All eyes will be on Mr Trump when he delivers a speech today at the Arab Islamic-US Summit graced by dozens of world Muslim leaders, including Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, at the capital city.

Other guests of honour include Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.

Mr Trump's speech, which is aimed at rallying Muslims in the fight against extremists, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, is also designed to reset the President's image in relation to Muslims, said one White House official, who insisted on anonymity.

What tumbles out of Mr Trump's mouth will be especially sensitive, given tensions sparked by the Trump administration's attempted travel ban targeting several Muslim majority nations and accusations of anti-Islamic rhetoric on his presidential campaign trail last year.

Before departing, the President tweeted he would be "strongly protecting American interests" on his marathon trip that would see him swing through the Middle East and Europe.

"I'll speak with Muslim leaders and challenge them to fight hatred and extremism, and embrace a peaceful future for their faith," he said ahead of his visit yesterday.

WORDS HAVE WEIGHT

This is more delicate because it's a religion you're talking about.

MR ELLIOTT ABRAMS, a former national security official in the George W. Bush administration on how the US President has changed his position on many matters.

Mr Trump's apparent about-face on Islam is the latest example of him reversing his campaign position or rhetorical tone since being elected president last year.

"He has changed his position on lots of matters... so there's no particular reason he can't say whatever he wants to say," said Mr Elliott Abrams, a former national security official in the George W. Bush administration.

"This is more delicate because it's a religion you're talking about."

Mr Trump previewed his new, less strident tone on Islam when he signed a religious liberty executive order earlier this month as he announced his first foreign trip.

Speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House, the US leader called his country "a nation of tolerance" that "honours the freedom of worship".

He said he would carry that theme to Saudi Arabia, home to two of Islam's holiest sites, where he hopes to "construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies".

Mr Trump intends his address today as a contrast to his predecessor Barack Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo, when expectations were high that he would usher in a new era in US-Middle East relations after nearly a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr Obama, eyed suspiciously by Sunni Arab Gulf states to be tilting towards their Shi'ite regional rival Iran, said "America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition", but share common principles.

But Mr Obama's outreach drew mixed reviews, and tensions built over some of his administration's actions that followed regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Arab Spring and the conflict in Syria.

While Mr Obama often promoted human rights and democracy when he travelled abroad, Mr Trump has signalled he will not follow suit.

"Our task is not to dictate to others how to live, but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity and stability to the war-ravaged Middle East," Mr Trump said in his Rose Garden remarks.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline 'All eyes on Trump when he delivers speech to Muslim world'. Print Edition | Subscribe