Trump's trip a chance to reset US-Arab ties

A giant billboard featuring US President Donald Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on display in Riyadh, ahead of the US leader's first trip to the region. It is seen as a major test for a president beleaguered at home and who is new t
A giant billboard featuring US President Donald Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on display in Riyadh, ahead of the US leader's first trip to the region. It is seen as a major test for a president beleaguered at home and who is new to the complexities of the Middle East.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

US President's first trip abroad will be closely watched for how he handles international diplomacy in Middle East

President Donald Trump touches down to a royal reception in Riyadh today - and an opportunity for a fresh United States approach to a complex region.

But his first trip overseas will also be closely watched for how the mercurial President, beset by political troubles at home, navigates the currents of international diplomacy. There is particular interest on how he will be received in Saudi Arabia given the way he railed against Muslims during his presidential campaign last year and, after taking office, tried to ban travel to the US from seven Muslim majority countries.

Analysts are cautiously optimistic. Mr Trump will be surrounded by top aides, and the events will be tightly scripted. Moreover, his hosts want the trip to be a success.

After Saudi Arabia, the President will travel to Israel, the Vatican, Belgium - where he will visit European Union headquarters - and finally Italy, for a Group of 7 meeting in Sicily.

Mr Trump is expected to get the warmest welcome in the Middle East; Saudi and Israeli leaders did not have a particularly warm relationship with his predecessor, Mr Barack Obama. The Saudis did not appreciate being lectured by Mr Obama, or his overtures to Iran, a senior US diplomat told The Straits Times - and are willing to look beyond Mr Trump's anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric.

In Riyadh, the US President will meet Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) group, the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict in Yemen and the war in Syria are expected to dominate discussions. An approximately US$100 billion (S$139 billion) arms export deal for Saudi Arabia, including an anti-missile defence system, may be unveiled.

TACKLING CHALLENGES TOGETHER

There is going to be an effort to consider how to go forward together in confronting both the challenge from Iran as well as radical extremist organisations.

MR GERALD FEIERSTEIN, a former US ambassador to Yemen now with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Mr Trump is expected to try to establish a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia particularly against groups like ISIS.

Tomorrow, he will speak to leaders from more than 50 Muslim-majority countries, including Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, at the Arab Islamic American Summit, intended to distance Islam's image from terrorism.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir told reporters in Riyadh on Thursday: "This visit will be considered by history as a crucial turning point in opening relations between the Arab world and the West."

In a phone interview, Mr Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen now with the Middle East Institute in Washington, told The Straits Times: "There is going to be an effort to consider how to go forward together in confronting both the challenge from Iran as well as radical extremist organisations.

"There is optimism about how this new administration is going to work out; probably the same is true more broadly when he gets to Israel."

The trip is seen as a major test for a president beleaguered at home, who personally does not like travelling overseas and is new to the complexities of the Middle East. Therefore, while Mr Trump has talked up expectations, results may be modest.

Mr Rafael Frankel, vice-president at the Washington consultancy BowerGroupAsia, told The Straits Times: "President Trump is fooling himself if he truly believes he can bring resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but no more so than any of his predecessors."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'Trump's trip a chance to reset US-Arab ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe