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Trump’s Alignment with Sunni Autocrats Masks Shallow Understanding of Region

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President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia has engendered endless press reporting and analysis. Two key points stand out in the media coverage. First, the trip was mostly show than action. Second, the Saudis played up to Trump’s craving for adulation and narcissism. They knew he was a fickle showman and acted accordingly. He of course loved it, and they proved that rich princely Bedouins could capture the world stage, at least for a fleeting moment.

What projects, centers, institutes, and deals Trump announced in Riyadh were either already in the works before he took office or were merely memoranda of understanding, not actual deals involving money on the table. He talked about the “splendor” of Saudi Arabia, bashed Iran, deplored “Islamist extremism,” and described the fight against terrorism as a “battle between good and evil.”

President Trump touted a Saudi-American partnership “based on shared interests and values” and grounded his envisioned doctrine in what he called “principled realism.” Unfortunately, what emerged from the visit was a “partnership” based solely on interests not values. He failed to mention the miserable human rights record of his hosts and their Bahraini and other neighbors. Although he admired Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s shoes, Trump did not chastise the Egyptian dictator for the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Egyptian jails.

Trade Trumps Values

Trump and his Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson believe that values, especially the emphasis on human rights, impede trade and close relations with Middle Eastern and other autocrats. American foreign policy since the 1970s has endeavored to balance American values—good governance, liberty, gender equality, and human rights in general—with its interests. President Jimmy Carter initiated the State Department annual human rights reports, which US embassies were required to submit about the human rights practices of the host countries. Even dictators paid attention to those reports. The Carter administration and successive Republican and Democratic administrations, while adhering to the reporting requirement on human rights, vigorously pursued American interests in commerce, security, arms sales, and counterterrorism.

President Trump on his maiden international trip seems to throw this policy out the window. He was silent about the thousands of Shia political prisoners in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and implicitly gave the Gulf Arab potentates the green light to proceed with their repression and discrimination. In fact, right after he left Saudi Arabia, Bahraini security forces conducted a raid on the home of Ayatollah Isa Qasim, Bahrain’s top Shia cleric, in the village of Diraz, killing at least five peaceful protesters and arresting nearly 300. Saudi security forces in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, where most Saudi Shia citizens live, act more like an occupation force. In the weeks before President Trump’s visit, Saudi security forces arrested scores of Shia activists in that region. Freedom of expression has been completely muzzled in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Equally severe conditions also prevail in Egypt whose autocratic leader has forged a warm relationship with the American president.

The Shia majorities in Bahrain and in the Eastern Province view the reference to “values” in Trump’s speech as a depiction of the values shared by two wealthy, dictatorially inclined families—one runs a private family business, the other a palatial desert monarchy. As Gulf and other Arab populations under authoritarian rule listen to President Trump glorifying the shared values with his newfound Saudi friends, they see their fellow citizens suffer from illegal detentions, torture, and sham trials and convictions.

More importantly, Iran was holding free and open elections, which resulted in an impressive victory for the moderate president Hassan Rouhani. The elected president is committed to rapprochement with the United States and with the West in general. President Trump’s speech to the mostly Sunni leaders of Arab and Islamic states assembled in Riyadh—the head of Azerbaijan was reportedly the only Shia leader at the gathering—was almost a call to arms against Iran even though most of the terrorist “evil losers” trace their radical ideology to the Saudi Sunni interpretation of Islam, not to Shia Iran. The Iranian presidential and municipal elections were a stark reminder that Iran is one of the rare Arab Muslim countries that holds frequent and relatively free elections.

Deeper Implications of Taking Sides

President Trump’s apparent alignment with Sunni autocrats has thrust him in the middle of the centuries-old Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. This is unwise and in the long-term harmful to American interests and presence in the Muslim world. The president seems clueless about the history of Islam and the different schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam. Nor is he aware of, or perhaps cares about, the fact that the most conservative and intolerant of these schools is the basis of Saudi Islam. How can an American president share “values” with a country that proselytizes a hateful, narrow-minded religious ideology intolerant of Jews and Muslims, disrespectful of women, and scornful of human rights?

By taking sides, President Trump has plunged the United States into the wars of Islam in support of one sect against the other. America remains involved in Iraq although most the population are Shia. By doing so, Trump has undercut America’s role as an unbiased broker of possible reconciliation between Iran and its Arab neighbors. Even within Sunni Muslim countries, the president’s growing cozy relations with wealthy, corrupt Muslim autocrats—whether in the Levant, the Persian Gulf, or Central Asia—will surely alienate him and America from Arab Sunni publics.

President Trump’s Riyadh speech on terrorism and radicalism also reflects his lack of knowledge of the factors that drive terrorism. He is correct in pointing out that the countries of the region must participate in the war against terrorism and deprive the terrorists a safe haven in these countries. Ideology, however, is only one factor. Other equally important factors involve regime policies of repression, corruption, poor economic policies, and lack of job creation.

Selling arms to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Bahrain, for example, helps produce jobs in America but does not produce jobs for unemployed Saudi, Bahraini, or Egyptian youth. If the president were interested in promoting peace and stability in the region—and at the same time proclaiming American values of hard work and productive citizenship—he should have talked more about entrepreneurship, job creation, innovation, and the freedom to experiment and innovate.

If President Trump is truly committed to countering extremism, he should realize that it cannot be done through the establishment of military alliances or the opening of such media-hyped institutes as the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology or the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, which he touted in his speech.

The president correctly told his audience that millions of young Arab Muslim men and women “seek great futures to build, great national projects to join, and a place for their families to call home.” But he neglected to remind his listeners that these expectations begin with dismantling autocratic, corrupt regimes and opening the gates of freedom to their people.

Curiosity, inquiry, and the search for a better future based on dignity, honest work, and the freedom to experiment must begin with lifting the yoke of repression and corruption. The first Arab Human Development Report in 2002 identified three major “deficits”—freedom, women’s empowerment, and human capabilities/knowledge—that Arab regimes and governments must address if the region is to realize its potential. A decade and a half later these deficits have largely been unaddressed because regimes focus on their own survival and wealth accumulation with only the slightest concern for their citizens.

President Trump did not dare to look his adoring audience in the eye and explain these inconvenient truths. He needed to be adulated, and they obliged him. He took the easy way out by saying “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.” The President went to the region as a deal maker and a salesman for American weapon manufacturing. He talked about Islam, terrorism, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the benefit of expert advice in any of these areas. After great showmanship in Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, he and his family left the region without much to show for or to benefit the people of that war-torn region.

President Trump should have addressed the “deficits” head on by urging his assembled autocrats and potentates to open their societies to freedom, empower their women, and advance inquiry and knowledge. He did not and as such lost a historic opportunity to help reshape the Middle East.

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Bret Stephens is a columnist for the New York Times who previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary.


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