Speaking and shaking hands in Riyadh, Donald Trump kicked off the opening days of his state trip overseas by participating in a traditional sword dance, clasping an ominous ball of light, and signing a massive, multi-billion dollar arms deal.
In an unusual move, the commander-in-chief opted to take his first trip abroad away from the usual stomping grounds of Canada and Mexico into Saudi Arabia.
Lost among the pictures of sword dances and press conferences was talk about how the United States and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman could collaborate to counter the growing regional influence of Iran.
The President’s vision for the Middle-East, extolled in the Gulf nation’s capital city of Riyadh, was neither optimistic nor inclusive.
“We are not here to lecture you. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship,” said Trump, addressing a roomful of royals, oil barons, and wealthy princes.
The Times of Israel ran a story yesterday elaborating on some of his remarks.
As part of Trump’s quest for peace, he planted the weight of the United States firmly behind Saudi Arabia as he aggressively criticized the foreign policy of Iran.
“From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,” he said.
The irony of an American President criticizing the politics of a theocratic Shi’ite democracy from within Saudi Arabia was not lost on recently re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“Buying arms or building weapons won’t make a country powerful,” said Rouhani in response to Trump’s statements in Riyadh.
“The foundation of power is national strength and this only happens through elections,” he continued. “Trump saw millions of Iranians took part in an election, but he visited a country whose people have not seen a ballot box and don’t know what an election is.”
Iran is not beyond reproach – not by any measure. Its security forces have played an active role supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war, even as government helicopters drop barrel bombs on residential centers and waft potent chemical mixtures towards civilian and opposition encampments alike.
But for the President of the United States of America to decry the human rights abuses of an old enemy while standing on Saudi soil is puzzling, to say the very least.
The American relationship with Saudi Arabia has never been entirely straightforward or 100% linear. Built on an exchange of currency, oil, and equipment, the alliance between both nations has seen its ups and downs, with the kingdom’s rulers occasionally criticizing Washington’s take on the Palestinian question.
No matter how inconvenient and disconcerting the US-Saudi alliance has been, the friendship between two diametrically different countries has stayed the test of time.
The amicable relationship between the supplier of oil and its recipient may not be up for debate – but what is is why the leader of the world’s oldest and second-largest democracy would feel comfortable damning Iran as a sponsor of terror and abuser of human rights in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, a country where women still cannot drive, work alongside with men, or perform tasks as mundane as travel without the presence of a male guardian; a country where political dissidents are tortured and disappeared, ruled under the firm grip of an ultra-conservative monarchy. A country where Donald Trump’s wife and daughter can break tradition by showing their hair, while the majority of its female inhabitants can scarcely step into public without revealing more than a sliver of skin.
Only years after Barack Obama opened the door to economic and political relations with Iran, Donald Trump threatens to again destabilize the Middle-East by digging the United States into an entanglement of sectarian conflict and ethnic strife.
Iran deserves its condemnation, but so too does Saudi Arabia.
Americans shouldn’t forget their dedication to advancing democratic goals around the globe; neither should they let the memory of so many abusive regimes propped up by taxpayer dollars slip away, from Pinochet in Chile to Saddam Hussein before Kuwait.
King Salman can roll out the red carpet for his billionaire colleague and fellow world leader Donald Trump in Riyadh, but our commander-in-chief should hold his allies to the same standards his rhetoric seeks to set.