With First Foreign Visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump Signals Shift in Middle East Strategy

FILE - Saudi Arabia's King Salman (right) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, in Riyadh, April 19, 2017.
FILE – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman (right) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, in Riyadh, April 19, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump is about to embark on his first foreign trip, a nine day journey that takes him to the seats of the world’s three great Abrahamic (monotheistic) religions and signals a 180-degree shift from his predecessor’s approach toward the Middle East.

“The most useful way to look at President Trump’s strategy is to see him as the anti-Obama,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He is definitively changing American foreign policy from the Barack Obama era to the Donald Trump era as it concerns the Middle East.”

“Obama made a purposeful effort to talk directly to the people,” Satloff explained. “His first trip to the Middle East included speeches not to national assemblies and parliaments, but to universities where he could talk over the heads of the leaders. He wanted to create a new balance in the Arab world, characterized by speaking to people rather than leaders.”

“Trump wants to undo all that,” Satloff said.

The first stop on Trump’s tour will be Saudi Arabia, site of Islam’s holiest shrines, where he will be welcomed by King Salman, who is assembling a greeting committee of as many as 20 heads of state representing a large percentage of the world’s 1.5 billion Sunni Muslims.

Trump’s advisers see the Riyadh visit as an opportunity to repair the president’s image with Muslims after an election campaign marked by rhetoric many saw as Islamophobic, and a presidency that began with announcement of a temporary ban on Muslim refugees, and visas for citizens from a handful of Muslim-majority countries.

Within the human rights community, the visit has been met with a collective shrug. “It’s certainly a consistent choice, given the parade of dictators who’ve been welcomed at the White House,” said Andrea Presow of Human Rights Watch.

Before he makes his first presidential step outside the United States, Trump will have hosted several autocratic Muslim leaders, including such heavyweights as Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan

“Expectations are low,” said Richard LeBaron of the Atlantic Council, a former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait. “The travel ban didn’t come as a shock to Muslims, LeBaron told VOA. “They had built it into their expectations about Trump.”

But the image of being warmly greeted by such a strong representation of Sunni Muslim kings, emirs and presidents is a potential bonanza for a U.S. leader beleaguered by domestic troubles.

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SOURCE: Peter Heinlein 
VOA News