Flopped international debut
Donald Trump made the unusual choice of selecting the Kingdom Saudi Arabia—an oligarchic kleptocracy—as the first foreign country he visited as United States President. Conversely, one could argue that it was perhaps a brave move to walk into the genealogical epicentre and the principal financer of the most virulent strain of Islam that has incubated, funded and exported the extremist Wahhabism that accounts for much of the crisis in the Ummah. If so, then the Presidential moment was lost, and on the contrary, the regressive narrative was perpetuated and accelerated. His much-awaited address on the Saudi soil turned out to be a dud, replete with banalities of yore. Worse, green-shoots of recent progress made concerning the on-ground battle against ISIS, and the much-needed rapprochement with Iran, was effectively put on the backburner and poised for deterioration.
Leaders and representatives from 55 Arab and Muslim countries were in attendance for the Riyadh Summit 2017. It was a landmark event that hosted the bilateral US-Saudi summit, US-GCC Council Summit and the Arab Islamic American Summit – culminating in the new 'Global Center for Combating Extremism'. Unsurprisingly, the notable absentee in the melee was Iran. This gathering hosted some of the guiltiest nations and internationally acknowledged benefactors of the 'Terror Inc'. It was an invaluable opportunity and platform for Donald Trump to do some plain-speaking and calling a spade a spade. That opportunity was lost, as he ducked the fundamental truths and harped on replaying the staid line, which ingratiates and absolves the Gulf Sheikhdoms and continuously spins the convenient falsehoods.
To accentuate the sad hypocrisy of the moment, around the same time of the Donald Trump's visit to the region, results of the Iranian voters reelecting the moderate-reformist Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, trickled in. A rare participative democracy in the region, Iran, overwhelmingly and to the discomfiture of its hardline clergy, is bravely choosing to defeat religious conservatism, economic populism and international isolationism. With women voters clearly tilting and winning the day for Hassan Rouhani, the aspiration in Tehran was aptly captured by Rouhani's optimism when he said, "Yesterday, you said no to those who wanted us to return to the past".
Nonetheless, the buds of these organic reforms within Iran were scarred by the unnecessary haranguing of Iran (much to the delight of the audience). "But no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three--safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of Iran," said Trump. This is when Iranian-backed forces (along with the Kurdish militia) are perhaps the single most decisive reason behind the retreat of ISIS.
Moreover, there is no Iranian handiwork in any of the recent terror events in the world – the perpetrators of acts of terror have one common enemy besides the US, and that is Iran. It is regimes of the nations sitting in the audience who had knowingly propped up much of the fundamentalist elements. While Iran was contextualised to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, there was no mention of Saudi support to Al Nusra (Al Qaida offshoot in Syria), Saudi bombing of civilians in Yemen, Turkish bombardment of the Kurdish YPG, Pakistani support to Taliban in Afghanistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba in India, Qatar support to Hamas or that the money trail from most of the affluent Gulf cities would invariably lead to bloodstains across the globe.
Trump waxed eloquently about religious tolerance in Riyadh. "For many centuries the Middle East has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews living side-by-side," he said. Ironically, Jews are disallowed in Saudi Arabia, whereas, Iranian politics aside, there is a thriving Jewish community in Iran with nearly 60 synagogues and a seat reserved for the Jewish community in Majlis (Iranian Parliament). Similarly, irony died when Trump's raised his concerns on gender equality.
"Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear," he said in front of Saudi leadership that has institutionalised gender discrimination vis-à-vis Iran. Women workplace participation in Iran went up from 9.1 per cent in 1996 to 31.9 per cent in 2009, and has the unknown distinction of having more female students in engineering fields than any other country in the world! Yet Iran, a country at the forefront of fighting the principal terror organisation in the world i.e. ISIS, an evolving democracy, a country with progressive gender and minority rights, and one, which was has recently committed to transparency via the signing of the Nuclear Agreement, was demonised with accusations like, "ruin for many leaders and nations in this room".
The inherent contradiction was exemplified when the clichéd, "our vision is one of peace" was soon followed up with an enthusiastic salesman's pitch by Trump. "This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defence purchase - and we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defence companies," the US President declared. With the only known Saudi military action and bombardment against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and not against the ISIS or Taliban, apparently, commerce overcame ground-realities.
Selective amnesia hit Trump who had earlier castigated Saudis for their role in 9/11 when he pontificated, "Who blew up the World Trade Center" and added, "It wasn't the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents". Trump's forgotten chiding of Hillary Clinton for accepting $25 million from the Saudi Kingdom when he said, "people that push gays off … buildings.
These are people that kill women and treat women horribly and yet you take their money", was conveniently forgotten. Trump's brazenness mocked even the slow-but-sure thawing of the US-Iran freeze in the last months of the Obama administration. Sheikhdoms and some rogue nations have got away yet again, and a familiar hawkish line that suits the corporates in the US defence industry retains the illiberal and undemocratic regimes and continues to vilify the ghosts of the past, was achieved. Donald Trump did the expected U-turn, the guilty nations got a reprieve, and the situation in the region is set to deteriorate further.
Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.