We in America held our collective breath. I was expecting to see and hear some version of the diatribe, “Donald J. Trump is calling for complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” There were many more screeches by this bloviating mass of hatred and ignorance during his election campaign. But the Muslim thing stuck and then struck back. Because of his rants the courts have blocked his Muslim Travel ban as unconstitutional. The screams do not comport with our constitution and thank God for that. Now, he is moderating his stance on Muslims in general and Saudi Arabia in particular.
Donald Trump turned into the Donald of Arabia, a la Lawrence, during this trip. He was oh so comfortable in the gaudy opulence, the tea sipping, the chandeliers and red carpets. He even managed to bob up and down during an Ardah, a tribal sword dance that Bedouins perform before setting off for some bloodthirsty raid.
His speech to and about Islam turned out to be an exhortation to the Sunni rulers to get rid of the extremists and continue to do the same as they have done for decades. The only thing he wants them to do is “fight the Islamic extremists” and Iran. He made a determined effort to make sure that the audience of fifty plus Muslim majority country leaders understand that he had no intention in interfering in their “domestic affairs”. This is music to most of the iron-fisted Arab rulers. Now that the hectoring about human rights of that naïve Obama is over, they are free to go back to their old ways. Those old ways include denying women basic human rights, looting the state treasuries to lead lavish and corrupt lives and deny any freedom of thought and speech.
The other thing Trump did in the speech is make Iran the font of all evil. It is the same Iran that has just participated in a free election with sky high participation. It is the same Iran that has returned its moderate leader Rouhani back to power with a 55% plurality, the scornful mullahs notwithstanding. It is the same Iran that fights ISIS directly in Syria and has lost many of its officers and soldiers. No, we are obviously not in Kansas anymore!!
So, what did Donald of Arabia do while visiting the land of two holy places? The bad first:
• He signed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia which is hell bent on using its new arms on poorer Muslim nations. Yemen is a prime example. Saudi Arabia is responsible for the deaths of about 100,000 people in Yemen, all with American arms and mercenary troops from near and far.
• The Saudis promised a $100 million grant to the Ivanka Trump Foundation, whose goals and functions are murky at best.
• Donald of Arabia facilitated another $350 billion in bilateral trade and financing, the details of which are murky at best.
• Maybe some insider tip to Jared Kushner for the upcoming $2 trillion IPO of Saudi Aramco.
• Donald of Arabia took America deeper into supporting the regimes that are part of the problem. Wahhabi doctrine is the justification that ISIS and Al Qaeda use for their mayhem. It is Saudi money that creates an infrastructure of intolerance and bigotry.
These are all bad things for peace and prosperity in the world and region in particular. But the thing that is “bigly bad” (using Trumpian English here) is the corralling of the repressive governments and sanctioning Iran as a clear and emerging enemy. The real bad thing that has emerged from this is a new alliance between America and the Sunni autocratic rulers squarely aimed at Shia Iran. Donald of Arabia has declared, “It is a battle between good and evil” and has cast Iran as the leader of the “evil” domain. Never mind that seventeen of the nineteen hijackers of 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia, never mind that Saudi money and Wahhabi teachings have transformed countries like Pakistan and Kosovo into bastions of intolerance, never mind that Syria’s war grinds on because of Saudi and Qatari money. As Politico writes, ”As for the Sunni monarchies and military dictatorships like that run by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Trump promised to stop pestering them about human rights and political freedoms. “Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption,” he said. “And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms — not sudden intervention.”
Is there any good in this trip? There is something to rejoice in the Donald of Arabia’s trip to Saudi Arabia. It is staring in our faces but no one is making much of this. It is that that women in the entourage, namely, Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump, decided to show up, mingle with the feeble royals without any headgear whatsoever. If you look through the protocol and actual behavior of the American and other Western women, they have always been clad in scarves in order to show deference to the Saudi King and Wahhabi sensibilities. That trend has been broken into many pieces by Melania and Ivanka. These two women were slick and dolled up and mingled with the crowd without the requirement of a scarf. There are pictures of King Salman sitting down with Melania and Ivanka sans scarf. This does mean that, for the first time in many years, the powerful have decided to apply the lever of power against the arrogance of royals who try to look pious among their people while violating all norms of decency while visiting the West. Maybe from now on no Western woman will wear the scarf just to show deference to the autocrat. If you ask me if there was any good, I will point you to the scarf-less heads on Melania and Ivanka.
Overall, I fear what the new alliance between America and the Sunni autocrats will bring. If seems we are destined for regional instability with these regimes poking at Iran with American support. Israel views Iran as an existential threat mainly because the country is educated, somewhat democratic and has been able to sustain the sanctions and many other acts of enmity. There are some uneasy signs that Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is cozying up to the Saudis with promises for money for mosques and madrassas. Bangladesh does not need more mosques and madrassas. It definitely does not need Saudi money. It needs a way to provide more basic and technical education, create an entrepreneurial environment and, yes, eliminate the Islamist Jihadis. I hope the country has the wisdom to stay away from the Donald of Arabia and his cabal of autocrats.