In February 1945, a frail and ailing Franklin Roosevelt stopped in Egypt to meet contemporary Arab leaders, starting with the 70-year old founder of the Saudi Kingdom, Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, better known to non-Arabs as Ibn Saud.
The first US-Saudi Summit took place onboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, where the two leaders cemented a relationship that was to last for seven solid decades. In exchange for Saudi oil, the Americans promised to support the kingdom, militarily and politically, under Ibn Saud and all of his successors. It was Ibn Saud’s first venture outside his desert kingdom and he famously set up tent in traditional Bedouin fashion, with silk cushions, fabulous carpets, Arabic food and servants running back and forth, answering to his beck and call.
For Roosevelt it must have looked like a scene ripped straight out of One Thousand and One Nights. The Saudi King presented his US counterpart with a cup of strong Arabic coffee, which Roosevelt gulped down politely. Ibn Saud then smashed it to the floor into tiny fragments, a medieval Arabian gesture that means: “You are special to me and nobody will ever drink from this cup after you!”
By this juncture, FDR was a bundle of nerves, overworked from the pressures of World War II. He suffered a massive cerebral haemorrhage and died that April, two months after meeting Ibn Saud. The bilateral relationship he created with the House of Saud lasted much longer, however, culminating with a visit by Richard Nixon to Riyadh in the summer of 1974 that made him the first US President to ever visit Saudi Arabia.
It is doubtful that either Donald Trump or Ibn Saud’s son and successor, King Salman, know anything about these two encounters, since neither has ever shown the slightest appetite for historical trivia. The 83-year old Salman won’t be smashing coffee cups to impress his US guest or win him over during Trump’s visit to his country on 20 May. He doesn’t need to, though – because Trump has already been won over, and is wholly convinced that Saudi Arabia is a crucial ally for the US in his swashbuckling war on terror. Any instinct he might have to punish the Saudis for inspiring terrorism across the world via Wahhabism – which is at the crux of al-Qaeda and ISIS ideology – is outweighed by his need for the Saudis to prevent the spread and recurrence of the very same terrorist activities he spoke about at his inauguration in January.
Trump hopes to use his first overseas trip to overshadow his anti-immigration legislation and the highly controversial ‘Muslim Ban’, which made him look and sound anti-Islamic. During his 2016 campaign, the Republican tycoon accused the Saudis of wanting to “control US politicians” and once even claimed that the kingdom “blew up the World Trade Center.” He also accused his rival, Hillary Clinton, of pocketing US$25-30 million in bribes from Saudi Arabia.
From Riyadh, Trump hopes to outline his vision for a security pact that White House officials are calling “an Arab NATO.” It would lead the fight against Islamic fundamentalism and Iran, with Trump in the driving seat, aided by the Saudi king’s son and deputy crown prince, Mohammad Ibn Salman. Events on the itinerary for Trump’s visit include a counter-terrorism function at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, and the Tweeps 2017 social media summit at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Trump will also meet with member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council and lunch with over 50 Muslim and Arab leaders, all guests of King Salman. The US will also announce a US$100 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia – one of the largest in American history and an accord that constitutes the cornerstone of the “Arab Nato.”
Trump hopes to re-assert America’s position in the war on terror, a subject that is ostensibly dear to his heart. He will find a colorful assortment of Arab allies eager to help him clip the wings of Iran in regional and international affairs.
In return, however, the Saudis expect him to help them find a way out of the wars in Yemen and Syria, safeguarding their interests at the expense of Tehran’s. What they won’t get out of him is a walk-out on the Iran Nuclear Deal, signed by the Obama Administration to much Saudi displeasure.
At best, Trump is expected to keep silent on human rights abuses in Yemen, abuses which prompted Barack Obama to temporarily halt cooperation with Riyadh during the latter part of his tenure at the White House.
Seven million people in Yemen are facing starvation and 17 million are in need of urgent humanitarian relief after two years of fighting between a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels backed by Iran.
Over the years, the US and Saudi Arabia have found plenty of common enemies in Nazism, Communism, Khomeinism, and more recently, Sunni Salafism. After Saudi Arabia, Trump will head to Israel, another long-time US ally in the region, then drop in on the Vatican to meet the leader of the Catholic world. After that, he is scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, before heading to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, where he will confer with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.
These stops are no coincidence – they are highly orchestrated, taking the US president to the holiest sites of the three monotheistic religions and sending a message that, under his leadership, they can find ways to work together.