What to expect | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 20, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:58 PM, May 19, 2017


What to expect

Donald Trump heads to Saudi Arabia yesterday on his first foreign trip as president to repair relations with the United States' closest Arab ally, restart the Arab-Israeli peace process and, potentially, reassert the US security role in the region.

Going to Saudi Arabia first is a highly symbolic move for President Trump who is struggling with political troubles at home, but is drawing optimism from Arab leaders despite his deep unpopularity in Arab public opinion for his anti-Muslim commentary during the 2016 US election campaign.

The president will hold a series of meetings starting today with Saudi rulers, including King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudis want more US help confronting Iran and armed groups, as well as private investment in Saudi companies.

Trump will hold a separate session with leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to discuss the civil war in Syria and potential "de-escalation zones" to provide safe areas for civilians.

The US president will lunch with 56 invited Arab and Muslim leaders to discuss combating "extremism" and cracking down on illicit financing of armed groups, according to the White House.

Trump will not come away empty-handed. The president expects to ink a $100bn arms sale with Saudi Arabia. Several leading American CEOs from companies will be meeting with Saudi counterparts to discuss potential investments in the kingdom's privatisation drive, Saudi Vision 2030.

After visiting Saudi Arabia, Trump will fly to Israel for meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then to the Vatican in Rome, where he will seek an audience with Pope Francis before heading to Brussels for a Nato summit, talks with EU leaders, and then a meeting of the G-7 industrial nations in Sicily.

"The Middle East leaders, particularly in the Gulf and Jordan, were not pleased with the way Obama handled Middle East policy from their point of view and, as a consequence, just because they have a different president leading foreign policy, that is welcomed," Shibley Telhami, a professor and pollster at the University of Maryland, told Al Jazeera.

Expectations among most analysts in Washington are fairly low for the Middle East leg of Trump's trip. Some analysts, such as Danielle Pletka - vice president for foreign and defence policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute - see a broad opportunity for Trump to reshape US policy in the Middle East.

Others such as Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, see Trump's options in the Middle East constrained by realities of regional politics and power positions on the ground in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

"On all of these things, there is no possibility of great breakthroughs, of policy options that were avoided by Obama and are still available to us, or have somehow been created in the four months that Trump has been president," O'Hanlon told Al Jazeera. "Don't expect much to change." 

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