Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia is only the start
Prime Minister Sharif will figure among dozens of leaders joining U.S. President Donald Trump for an Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Saudi Arabia on May 21. Across the Gulf, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is set to win re-election against his formidable rival Ebrahim Raisi, the custodian of Iran’s biggest shrine in Mashhad—signaling the Iranian people’s approval of Rouhani’s “flexible” policy toward America and its allies. In his first tour as U.S. president, Trump has to find his way through the confusion of Middle East, much of which he blames on his predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Saudi Arabia, and its wide-ranging influence over Arab and Muslim states, including non-Arab Pakistan, was offended when Obama brokered a nuclear agreement with Iran and removed sanctions preventing foreign investment in the country. The Republican Party, unmindful of Europe’s sensitivities, never liked the deal, and Trump has condemned it throughout his campaign and in subsequent comments following his victory. This is key to the Saudis seeing the U.S. in a favorable light once more. But it was Republican Bush who ruined the Middle East’s political map by invading Iraq and setting the scene for Iran to emerge as a powerbroker. With the help of the dominant Shia army, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Iraqi-Shia militias, Tehran is believed to be involved in conflicts across the Middle East—a worrying prospect for Israel, which also fears Iran’s nuclear bomb.
It appears Trump wants to renew the old American leverage in the region, with both Saudi Arabia and Israel united—against Iran. This conflicts with Trump’s campaign promises to sort out Islamic State, a palpable threat to Europe and the United States because of its global outreach. Tehran remains the sole country that—albeit for sectarian reasons—is focused entirely on eradicating I.S.
This is not a very clear strategic map, and Trump is bound to offend Europe if he dumps Iran without spelling out a clear vision for tackling I.S. Pakistan is likewise humbled by the changing Middle Eastern conflict map and is reluctant to dump Iran, its strategic neighbor. It fears India in Afghanistan, when the neighboring nation’s diplomacy in the Middle East—it is friendly with both Israel and Saudi Arabia—is more potent. The prospect of seeing Islamic State let off the hook in Syria-Iraq must unsettle Islamabad while realizing that its location in South Asia makes it vulnerable to the U.S. vs. China contest now expected to sharpen under Trump. Except that Trump is not yet over the hump back home and will be faced in the coming days with real foreign and domestic and foreign policy contradictions.