Trump’s visit to Saudi Ara­bia in­cited con­flicts in Mid­dle East, an­a­lysts say

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KA­REEM FAHIM AND ERIN CUN­NING­HAM ka­reem.fahim@wash­post.com erin.cun­ning­ham@wash­post.com Heba Farouk Mah­fouz in Cairo con­trib­uted to this re­port.

is­tan­bul — In a speech in­tended to gal­va­nize Arab and Mus­lim lead­ers against threats from ex­trem­ists and Iran, Pres­i­dent Trump de­manded unity from his au­di­ence in Saudi Ara­bia, and fo­cus.

“One goal tran­scends ev­ery other con­sid­er­a­tion,” he said to the as­sem­bled lead­ers in the Saudi cap­i­tal, in an ad­dress that shifted be­tween stark re­al­ism and star­tling op­ti­mism. “We pray this special gath­er­ing may some­day be re­mem­bered as the be­gin­ning of peace in the Mid­dle East,” he said.

But in­stead of peace, the Mid­dle East was bat­tered by a wave of con­flict in the days that fol­lowed, awash with re­crim­i­na­tions and re­pres­sion that sug­gested that, far from unit­ing the re­gion, Trump’s words had only ag­gra­vated its di­vides.

Qatar and Saudi Ara­bia launched a bizarre and un­ex­pected war of words that high­lighted their long­time com­pe­ti­tion for re­gional in­flu­ence and their of­ten sharply con­trast­ing vi­sions.

As that dis­pute raged last week, the lead­ers of Bahrain and Egypt em­barked on unusu­ally vi­cious crack­downs on po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents at home, killing five peo­ple and ar­rest­ing hun­dreds.

And lead­ers in Iran, Saudi Ara­bia’s prin­ci­pal ri­val, where vot­ers ear­lier this month re­elected a re­formist pres­i­dent, went on the of­fen­sive, con­demn­ing Trump’s an­nounce­ment of bil­lions of dol­lars in weapons sales to the Saudis while re­veal­ing the ex­is­tence of an un­der­ground ballistic mis­sile fa­cil­ity.

An­a­lysts said the ten­sions were al­most surely a con­se­quence of Trump’s visit to Riyadh: a force­ful Amer­i­can en­dorse­ment of Saudi lead­er­ship in the Arab world, punc­tu­ated by the weapons sales, which had stirred panic and anx­i­ety among the king­dom’s com­peti­tors and ene­mies while em­bold­en­ing its loyal and au­thor­i­tar­ian al­lies.

And Trump’s ap­peal for a com­mon stand against ter­ror­ism was un­likely to heal the rifts, an­a­lysts said: It was de­liv­ered to an au­di­ence of Arab lead­ers who have ap­plied the term so broadly and ca­su­ally — to vi­o­lent mil­i­tants as well as anti-gov­ern­ment bloggers — as to ren­der the word al­most mean­ing­less.

“Don­ald Trump now ac­cepts the view of Saudi Ara­bia as a strate­gic bas­tion in the Arab and Is­lamic World,” said Fawaz Gerges, a pro­fes­sor of Mid­dle East stud­ies at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics. And his visit was “re­lated” to the tu­mult that en­sued, Gerges said.

“What you are see­ing now is that the Saudi-led coali­tion feels em­pow­ered. They are on the of­fen­sive. It’s a new era. Ev­ery­one has to toe the line and join this al­liance,” he said.

The con­se­quences of the shift could trou­ble the re­gion for years, he said, by in­ten­si­fy­ing proxy wars in Ye­men or Syria, where Saudi Ara­bia and Iran have sup­ported op­pos­ing sides, Gerges said.

New fronts also could ig­nite — be­tween Is­rael and Hezbol­lah, Iran’s ally, in places like south­ern Le­banon.

“All sides are pre­par­ing for the next round,” Gerges said.

Ira­nian of­fi­cials ini­tially shrugged off Trump’s vo­cif­er­ous anti-Iran com­ments in Riyadh, dis­miss­ing the sum­mit as spec­ta­cle. Iran’s In­ter­net-savvy for­eign min­is­ter, Javad Zarif, ridiculed the U.S.-Saudi arms deal on Twit­ter.

But in the days since, the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment has adopted a more de­fi­ant tone, de­nounc­ing the raid in Bahrain against Shi­ite-led op­po­si­tion ac­tivists as a direct con­se­quence of Trump’s visit.

On Thurs­day, Iran un­veiled the coun­try’s third un­der­ground ballistic mis­sile fa­cil­ity. Its on­go­ing mis­sile pro­duc­tion has been a source of con­tention be­tween Iran and the United States.

“U.S. of­fi­cials should know that when­ever we need a mis­sile test for tech­ni­cal rea­sons, we will test it, and we will not wait for their per­mis­sion,” Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani said at a news con­fer­ence in Tehran on Tues­day.

It was a de­par­ture from the con­cil­ia­tory tone Rouhani took on the cam­paign trail, and came as a se­nior mil­i­tary aide to Iran’s supreme leader also con­demned the weapons deal as an at­tempt to desta­bi­lize the re­gion.

As the Arab world braced for an es­ca­lat­ing con­fronta­tion be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran, an­other fight broke out last week be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar, whose long-stand­ing ri­valry has flared re­peat­edly since the Arab up­ris­ings in 2011.

The ge­n­e­sis of the feud was a re­port pub­lished on the web­site of Qatar’s state news agency on Wed­nes­day. It quoted Qatar’s emir as crit­i­ciz­ing the mes­sages that had emerged from the Riyadh con­fer­ence, in­clud­ing the at­tacks by Trump and oth­ers on Iran and con­dem­na­tions of Ha­mas and Hezbol­lah, the Pales­tinian and Le­banese mil­i­tant groups.

Qatar later said that the emir had never spo­ken and that the state news agency had been hacked.

That did not prevent Saudi Ara­bia from launch­ing days of scathing at­tacks on Qatar through Saudi me­dia chan­nels, which sug­gested it would not tol­er­ate any di­ver­gence from the Saudi-led po­si­tion.

In a col­umn ti­tled, “Who runs Qatar,” a Saudi colum­nist, Said al-Su­raihi, writ­ing on the al-Ara­biya news site, said Qatar had “dis­en­gaged it­self from the con­sen­sus on is­sues that rep­re­sent a com­mon dan­ger to the en­tire re­gion.”

Trump’s visit — which in­cluded what was widely seen as a pledge not to lec­ture the re­gion on hu­man rights abuses — also raised fears about stepped-up do­mes­tic re­pres­sion in Saudi Ara­bia and the coun­tries in its or­bit, in­clud­ing Bahrain, the United Arab Emi­rates and Egypt. Vi­o­lence last week in Bahrain high­lighted those con­cerns. The tiny is­land na­tion — a Saudi ally and a close part­ner of the United States — has faced crit­i­cism for the gov­ern­ment’s re­pres­sion of dis­sent and ac­cu­sa­tions of sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion against Bahrain’s Shi­ite ma­jor­ity.

Trump met with Bahrain’s king in Riyadh last week, and promised their re­la­tion­ship would be free of the “strain” of pre­vi­ous years — a ref­er­ence to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pe­ri­odic scold­ing of Bahrain for rights abuses.

On Tues­day, two days af­ter the meet­ing, forces in Bahrain raided an op­po­si­tion sit-in out­side the house of Bahrain’s most revered Shi­ite cleric, killing five peo­ple in the dead­li­est con­fronta­tion with its op­po­nents since a pro-democ­racy up­ris­ing on the is­land in 2011.

On the same day, in Egypt, the gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Ab­delFatah al-Sissi ar­rested one of the coun­try’s most prom­i­nent op­po­si­tion lawyers and a likely chal­lenger to Sissi in elec­tions that will be held next year.

Sissi — who had ap­peared in a widely cir­cu­lated pic­ture along­side Trump and the Saudi king dur­ing the meet­ing in Riyadh, palm­ing a glow­ing orb in a newly minted coun­tert­er­ror­ism cen­ter — has re­ceived po­lit­i­cal sup­port as well as bil­lions of dol­lars in aid from the Saudis over the last few years.

Khalid Ali, the lawyer who was ar­rested, had played a prom­i­nent role in the le­gal ef­fort to block a plan by the gov­ern­ment to trans­fer sovereignty of two is­lands in the Red Sea from Egypt to Saudi Ara­bia.

It was not clear whether the ar­rest was re­lated to the Saudi con­fer­ence. Dozens of peo­ple have been de­tained in Egypt in re­cent weeks, in­clud­ing left­ist and lib­eral gov­ern­ment op­po­nents as well as work­ers and trade union­ists, ac­cord­ing to Ga­mal Eid, an Egyp­tian hu­man rights ad­vo­cate.

The au­thor­i­ties also blocked at least 21 news web­sites this week, in­clud­ing Qatar-based out­lets as well as Mada Masr, a news por­tal that it is widely seen as Egypt’s last re­main­ing in­de­pen­dent pub­li­ca­tion.

The crack­down was not new, Eid said, but af­ter the meet­ing in Riyadh — and Trump’s “green light”— the cam­paign of ar­rests and cen­sor­ship was “grow­ing fast,” he said.

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