As part of his first official trip abroad at the end of May, U.S. President Donald Trump will visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Brussels, Belgium.
According to a statement released by the White House, Trump's meetings with King Salman and other key figures "will reaffirm the strong partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia and allow the leaders to discuss issues of strategic concern, including efforts to defeat terrorist groups and discredit radical ideologies."
The goal may be commendable, but it is hardly attainable in a country like Saudi Arabia, ruled politically by an absolute monarchy and theologically by Wahhabism, both immensely radical.
Saudi Arabia is ruled politically by an absolute monarchy and theologically by Wahhabism, both immensely radical. Pictured: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (left) visits Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (center) on April 19, 2017 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Image source: Jonathan Ernst - Pool/Getty Images)
In testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, Georgetown University professor and Middle East expert Daniel Byman explained the "paradox" this presents:
"On the one hand, the Saudi government is a close partner of the United States on counterterrorism. On the other hand, Saudi support for an array of preachers and non-government organizations contributes to an overall climate of radicalization, making it far harder to counter violent extremism."
Byman is not alone in this assessment. A number of recently published books on the history, culture and internal workings of Saudi Arabia cast doubt on the ability of the kingdom to undergo the kind of change required to tackle extremism when its chief aim is to preserve and enhance the power of the royal family.
That the announcement of Trump's trip coincided with the signing of an executive order on "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty" could not have been more ironic. The government in Riyadh neither believes in nor permits religious liberty and free speech for its own citizens or for Muslims elsewhere. Indeed, the kingdom's human rights record is abysmal at best.
Moreover, during his speech in the Rose Garden to introduce the executive order, Trump said that another reason for his upcoming foreign trip was to "unite Islam, Judaism and Christianity in the common cause of fighting 'intolerance'" -- a claim just as jaw-dropping, given Saudi Arabia's role in the persecution of Christians across the Middle East.
This is not to say that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is not valuable or crucial in many respects. Both countries consider ISIS and al-Qaeda to be serious threats. Neither wants Iran to obtain regional hegemony, while hoping for a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. Both want to guarantee the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf.
In addition, Saudi Arabia remains a key U.S. investor and trading partner, and is the largest recipient of American-made arms. Even during the years of the Obama administration, when relations were strained, the U.S. provided Saudi Arabia more than $115 billion in weapons. Today, the Trump administration is pushing through tens of billions of dollars' worth of arms sales to Riyadh; and garnering American support in its raging conflict against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen is at the top of the Saudi agenda.
In a piece in Foreign Affairs last summer, Professor F. Gregory Gause III -- head of the International Affairs Department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University -- wrote that the relationship between Washington and Riyadh serves immediate American interests, but in the long term, Saudi Arabia is far from being a faithful and effective partner in battling radical ideologies. The Saudis simply do not have the same values, worldview or strategic vision as their U.S. counterparts.
In his Rose Garden address, Trump said:
"Our task is not to dictate to others how to live but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity and stability to the war-ravaged Middle East."
Although Trump is right that America should not "dictate to others how to live," he needs to consider how he can "build a coalition of partners" whose entire way of life is indelibly linked to the cause and spread of the very extremism, violence and global terrorism that he aims to eradicate.
A.Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East.