FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

Getty
Show Hide image

Macron celebrates 100 days in office with historically low approval ratings

He knows whose fault it is... and it's not his.

Clouds are accumulating over Jupiter. Today marks 100 days in the French presidency of Emmanuel Macron, the cunning “neither left nor right” politician with a grand vision for France who has been compared to the aforementioned king of Roman gods, France’s Sun King Louis XIV, and Napoleon, the last of whom Macron only just loses out to as the youngest French ruler since the Revolution. There’s just one problem with the narrative - the French people don’t seem to agree.

Macron’s approval ratings have plummeted over the summer, to reach an all-time low for any modern-era president's first 100 days of 36 per cent. That’s 10 points lower than his predecessor – and former boss – Francois Hollande, whose nickname right after his election in 2012 was “Flamby”, the French equivalent to a very floppy pudding. It's much lower than Nicolas Sarkozy, to whom Macron has been compared for his relative youth and flamboyant style: at 100 days, “Sarko” was sailing with 66 per cent (though he would fall to 34 per cent during his later “bling” period, never recovering enough for the 2012 election). That's even a point below Donald Trump's own ratings, and the US President is a few steps away from causing the apocalypse.

There are many explanations for this abysmal drop: rows have developed over the summer, including one over a planned housing aid cut and another after the general-in-chief quit over army budget cuts (the general's approval ratings in the row were much higher than the president’s). The French Parliament, which is controlled by his party La République en Marche, has also allowed the government to use rulings to reform the French labour market rather than putting them to a full vote.

But Macron thinks he knows the real reasons his popularity has fallen. MPs from his party are deemed inexperienced, his ministers don’t speak enough to the press and his Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, “doesn’t leave enough of a mark” on the public. Basically, it's not his fault – nevermind that his vision detailed all the things he is blaming: a renewed Assembly, a very restricive media strategy, and a PM who would remain in the president’s shadow.

To find a similarly unpopular French President near the start of his term, you must go back to 1995 and newly-elected Jacques Chirac’s attempt to makes cuts in the sacred French healthcare system, la Sécurité Sociale, which left voters feeling betrayed. He recovered, topping 63 per cent in 1999, but in 2002 was unpopular again and only got re-elected (with an astounding 82 per cent) because he was facing far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen in the runoff. Remind you of anyone? Actually, even that isn't a favourable comparison, as Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen last May was much less of a landslide, with 65 per cent.

Not all is lost, though. Now 84, Jacques Chirac saw the tide of public opinion turn in in his favour, at least after his presidency. He has been named "most likeable president" by the French people and has become a meme, notably on the viral Tumblr dedicated to photos of his mandates, FuckYeahJacquesChirac.

Macron’s own Tumblr fans aren’t quite as famous yet, but he will need all the help he can get if he wants his authority to survive past the autumn’s planned social movements.