U.S. President Donald Trump will participate in an international Islamic summit in Riyadh this weekend.
Trump has routinely spouted overtly Islamophobic rhetoric, but his very first international trip since taking office will start off with a trip to Saudi Arabia for a joint summit with leaders from more than 20 Muslim-majority nations.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman expressed optimism about the summit, expressing his hope that it will be the start of a "new partnership" between the U.S. and the Muslim world, according to ABC. Leaders of all the Gulf Cooperation Council nations will be in attendance as well as leading Muslim nations such as Turkey, Azerbaijan, Nigeria and Indonesia, along with numerous others.
The UAE is helping Trump prepare for the summit
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE's Armed Forces, is currently in the U.S. on his second visit since Trump took office. According to experts, he is helping prepare Trump for the summit.
"For the Americans, [Sheikh Mohammed] can provide an in-depth and comprehensive portrait of the new Saudi leadership, which is invaluable. For the Emiratis, they benefit, like other partners, from a successful Trump visit," Bilal Saab, chair of the Gulf Policy Working Group at the Atlantic Council think tank told The National. "So coming here to pave the way for it is key."
Trump has become notorious for his erratic interactions with allies and adversaries alike. Experts say that Sheikh Mohammed is hoping to assist the U.S. president to get up to speed on the complexities of the upcoming summit.
"It’s a friend of a friend coming over and saying this is going to be an important trip, let us help you understand the ground realities," Stephen Seche, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The National. "It’s still a sharp learning curve situation for the White House to understand a very prickly and difficult to fathom regional situation."
Saudi Arabia has been building an international Islamic alliance
King Salman has been working to strengthen ties between Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations.
At the end of 2015, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced a Saudi-led military alliance had been formed with 34 Islamic nations. The agreement includes sharing information as well as coordinating on training, equipping and providing forces, particularly in the struggle against extremist groups such as the so called Islamic State (IS or Daesh).
The U.S. appeared to welcome the alliance at the time.
"In general it appears it is very much in line with something we've been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat [Daesh] by Sunni Arab countries," former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at the time.
But with a new U.S. president and new military strategies now on the table, members of the Islamic military alliance can use this meeting to talk directly with the new administration.
Regional security and geopolitics will be on the agenda
One of the big issues to be discussed at the summit will be regional security.
The threat of Daesh, relations with Iran, and the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen will be major issues on the agenda. Trump and Saudi Arabia have generally appeared to align when it comes to the fight against extremists, and also when it comes to taking a hard stance against Iran and its influence in the region.
Prior to taking office and even during the first few weeks of his presidency, Trump appeared to support leaving Syria's President Bashar Al Assad in power. But after an April chemical attack allegedly perpetrated by the Syrian government, Trump changed his tone dramatically, carrying out missile strikes on Syrian military targets.
Trump has also been moving forward with multi-billion dollar military arms deals with Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.
A step toward Middle East peace?
Trump has made it clear that he's aiming to strike a deal between Israel and Palestine.
A resolution "is frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years," Trump said after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this month. He added that he hoped "something terrific could come out between the Palestinians and Israel."
Trump also departed from decades of U.S. diplomatic policy in February, saying that he was fine with a one-state solution.
"I’m looking at two-state and at one-state, and I like the one that both parties like... I can live with either one," Trump said during a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Saudi Arabia and other Muslims nations, particularly members of the GCC are seen as key to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Media reports have said that several Gulf states may be willing to normalize relations with Israel in return for renewed peace talks with Palestinians. Sources close to the Trump administration suggested earlier this year that the new president may be pushing for peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia first and foremost, to address the decades old conflict.
Already, in the past few years, Israel and several Gulf nations have secretly set up intelligence sharing deals. An unofficial delegation from Saudi Arabia, led by a retired general, visited Israel last year. The UAE even allowed Israel to set up a mission to the U.N.’s renewable-energy agency based in Abu Dhabi.
The Gulf states and Israel have been drawn closer around the reality of common enemies and mutual friends.
"We have the same enemy [Iran and Shiite backed militias throughout the region], the same threat," Saudi Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, now the kingdom’s deputy intelligence chief, said in February. "And we are both close allies of the Americans."
Following Trump's visit to Riyadh, he plans to go to Israel to meet with Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders.
Arab leaders aren't terribly concerned about Trump's Islamophobia
During his presidential campaign, Trump often came out against the Muslim community in his speeches, tweets and interviews. He even called for a full and complete ban on allowing Muslims to enter the U.S. in Dec. 2015.
In an interview with CNN in March of 2016, Trump said: "I think Islam hates us."
Since taking office, Trump has tried twice to ban immigrants and refugees from several Muslim majority countries. The executive order was blocked twice in federal courts, but the Trump administration has appealed the ruling and the ban could still potentially move forward.
"Our interests align," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister said in January. "The objectives we want to achieve are the same."
Jubeir also said that Saudi Arabia welcomes Trump's plan to "restore America’s role in the world."
Trump has also expressed his support and friendship to numerous Arab leaders, demonstrating that his rhetoric towards Muslim at home doesn't apply to his friends abroad.