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Zhao Minghao: Trump’s rebalance to Middle East faces daunting challenges


By Zhao Minghao    Source: Global Times    Published: 2017-5-27


Quite unexpectedly, US President Donald Trump chose the Middle East as the destination for his first foreign trip as sitting president. The improved relations between the US and Saudi Arabia have led people to wonder whether the Trump government will resort to a "rebalancing strategy" in the Middle East.

Striking a balance between combating terrorism and appeasing the Muslim world presents a tremendous challenge to the Trump administration.  During his visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump attended the Summit of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) and US as well as the Arab-Islamic-American Summit. He stressed that the overwhelming majority of victims of terrorism are Muslim, calling on Arab and Islamic countries to shoulder the burden in the fight against terrorism. The Riyadh Declaration issued after asserts that the summit constitutes a historical turning point.

An "Arab NATO" seems to have been established. A reserve force of 34,000 troops is to be assembled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support operations against terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, a global center for countering extremist thought will be created in Saudi Arabia for sharing information about anti-terrorism and planning joint actions.

Trump`s warm reception in Saudi Arabia is sharply contrasted with Riyadh`s former antipathy to the Obama government. Both sides have signed the Joint Strategic Vision Declaration and a series of agreements worth more than $380 billion covering aspects including defense, transport and energy.

Trump also signed a nearly $110 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, and the bilateral weapon trade will be worth $350 billion over the next 10 years. As always, Trump has been promoting "America First" policy. The US arms dealers have become the biggest beneficiaries of Trump`s visit. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia will provide support to Trump`s infrastructure plan.

Saudi Arabia hopes to highlight its lead in the Gulf and the Middle East though Trump`s visit, which is largely related to countering Iran. In front of leaders from 55 Arabian and Muslim countries, Trump spoke strongly against Iran, calling on all parties to oppose Iran`s backing of terrorist groups and interference in other countries` domestic affairs.

During the Obama administration, a nuclear deal with Iran was signed and sanctions against Iran were also relaxed, which caused dissatisfaction by American allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. As a result, the leader of Saudi Arabia refused to go to the US to meet Obama. Trump, however, is sympathetic to requests from Riyadh in making Iran a common enemy to Sunni Arabian countries. He had even threatened to reverse Iran`s nuclear deal with the US.

Recently, Hassan Rouhani won second -term as Iran`s president. Rouhani holds that Iran will continue constructive interaction with the international community in the next four years. Undoubtedly, voices against improving relations with the US are still strong in Iran. Trump`s harsh remarks in Saudi Arabia exert negative influence on US-Iran relations.

Since taking office Trump has experienced frustration from healthcare and tax reforms. More gravely, alleged collision between the Trump administration and Russia and his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey have also exerted even greater pressure upon Trump.  This foreign trip is consequently helpful for resetting a reliable image for Trump, appeasing allies in the Middle East, and realizing his campaign promise to combat terrorism.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed that the purpose of the trip was to convey the message that "America is back," marking the return of a vital US leadership role in confronting global challenges. However, it is not easy to realize this goal. Conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation will not be resolved over a foreign trip. America`s rebalancing strategy in the Middle East will face numerous challenges in the same way as its "Asia-Pacific rebalance" strategy has.

The author is a visiting fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.

Key Words: Trump   Middle East   challenge   Zhao Minghao  

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