How Trump Misunderstands the Middle East

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Wikimedia Commons/The White House

His words in Saudi Arabia and response to the Qatar crisis ignore a great deal.

President Trump’s comments during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia demonstrate his administration’s total lack of understanding of Middle Eastern realities. Trump and his team are so obsessed with undoing President Obama’s legacies in the Middle East that they have created a false image of the situation in the region, one that is dictated by their preferred views but that does not correspond to the reality on the ground. This distortion was clearly evident in President Trump’s proclamations regarding terrorism, Islamist extremism and Iran, and his cozying up to some of the worst violators of human rights in the region, such as President Sisi of Egypt, including publicly admiring the Egyptian leader’s shoes.

The atmospherics during President Trump’s visit to Riyadh, where he met not only with Saudi royalty and the absolute rulers of the GCC countries, but with dozens of leaders from across the Muslim world, was in stark contrast to the last meeting between President Obama and the Saudi king, which was a stiff encounter both because of Obama’s interest in striking a nuclear deal with Iran and his concern about human-rights violations by Middle Eastern rulers. What Trump told the Saudis in bilateral conversations, and his public speech before the gathered Muslim leaders, were music to Saudi ears.

The two themes that stood out in Trump’s pronouncements in Riyadh were, first, his exhortation to the assembled Muslim leaders to join the United States in what he described as “a battle between good and evil” and, second, his castigation of Iran as the primary source of terrorism and the main destabilizer of the Middle East. On the first issue, he made it clear that the United States and the rulers of Saudi Arabia and their allies were on the same side in the war against terrorism.

This statement, to say the least, defies common sense. For it is clear that the terrorists who owe allegiance either to Islamic State, to Al Qaeda, or to their many offshoots are ideological cousins of the Wahhabis who rule Saudi Arabia. Karen Armstrong has stated, “although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century.” She goes on to assert that while the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia has condemned ISIS strongly, “other members of the Saudi ruling class . . . look more kindly on the movement, applauding its staunch opposition to Shiaism and for its Salafi piety, its adherence to the original practices of Islam.”

This inconsistency in the Saudi approach is explained by the fact that the Islamic State considers the House of Saud insufficiently Islamic. It is the latest product of the trend first visible in Wahhabism in 1979, when a group of radical Wahhabis seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca to demonstrate their opposition to the Saudi establishment for its departure from the strict Wahhabi code. In other words, ISIS is a manifestation of Wahhabism from below that has become a deadly enemy of the Wahhabism above.

However, this has not deterred rich individuals from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikhdoms from contributing financially to the cause of radical extremism in Syria and elsewhere. It is difficult to believe that Gulf regimes, including the Saudis, that excel in controlling their populations are unaware of these financial transactions. But since much of this funding is aimed at countering Iranian influence, especially in Syria, they turn a blind eye. The Saudis have often been accused of funding extremist Sunni preachers and mosques in Europe and elsewhere who often act as conduits for jihadi ideology. However, given Riyadh’s clout with leading Western powers, the evidence of such activity has rarely been made public.

It appears that President Trump’s unequivocal embrace of Saudi Arabia has had a negative impact on intra-GCC relations. It has emboldened Riyadh to attempt to stamp out any dissent among GCC countries and turn the entire region into a Saudi protectorate. Qatar has become the first to feel the heat. Within ten days of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt and Yemen cut off all diplomatic, trade and transport ties with Qatar, citing the latter’s support for “terrorism”—the code word for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned in these countries since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. They also cited Qatar’s friendship with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional competitor, with which Qatar shares the world’s largest natural-gas field in the Persian Gulf. President Trump, in two tweets on Monday, endorsed the actions against Qatar. In the second tweet he declared, “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”