As part of his first tour abroad, President Trump urged Arab and Islamic leaders to unite and do their share to defeat Islamic extremists, making an impassioned plea to drive out terrorists.
During his speech on Sunday, President Trump also singled out Iran, noting that it was a key source of funding and support for various militant groups. His words aligned with the views of his Saudi Arabian hosts, but was also part of a tough message to Tehran, even as Iran completed the vote that Rouhani his second term in office. A runoff vote is not anticipated.
“Terrorism has spread all across the world. But the path to peace begins right here, on this ancient soil, in this sacred land,” said Trump as he addressed leaders from 50 Muslim-majority countries, which represent more than a billion people. The president did not use his signature term “radical Islamic terrorism” in the speech, a signal that he heeded advice to employ a more moderate tone in the region.
Part of his speech was portraying the fight against extremism as a conflict between good and evil, not a conflict between civilizations. At the same time, he made it clear that Washington would partner with the Middle East, but expected more concrete action in return.
“A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists. Drive them out! Drive them out of your places of worship, drive them out of your communities, drive them out of your holy land and drive them out of this earth,” said Trump. “There is still much work to be done. That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism, and the Islamists, and Islamic terror of all kinds.”
The term Islamist extremism refers to Islamism as a political movement rather than as a religion, a distinction that the Republican president had frequently criticized former President Obama for making.
The speech in a glided hall bedecked with chandeliers is part of an effort to redefine his relationship with the Muslim world. Trump’s “America First” philosophy helped him win the 2016 election, but has rattled allies who depend on the U.S. for support of their defense.
While Trump received a warm welcome from Arab leaders, they also were focused on his desire to crack down on Iran’s influence in the region, a commitment they found wanting in Obama.
“For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” said Trump. “It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this very room.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif fired back at Trump in a tweet, arguing that Trump had attacked Iran in “that bastion of democracy & moderation” of Saudi Arabia .
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman also described Iran as the source of terrorism that we must confront together.
“Our responsibility before God and our people and the whole world is to stand united to fight the forces of evil and extremism wherever they are…The Iranian regime represents the tip of the spear of global terrorism,” said King Salman.
Iran, which is a religious fascism has created militias that are fighting in a variety of countries, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen, just to name a few.
The U.S. and Gulf Arab nations also announced an agreement to coordinate efforts against the financing of terrorist groups.
“We are closely coordinating our efforts in terms of how to counter Iran’s extremism and its export of extremism,” said U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, at a joint news conference in Riyadh with Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister. Jubeir also praised Trump for renewing ties between the two countries, and pointed to the “extremely, extremely productive and historic visit”.
A forum on Saturday brought together American and Saudi corporate executives, which produced a series of multibillion-dollar deals, including a letter of intent signed by Lockheed Martin to assemble 150 Black Hawk helicopters in Saudi Arabia. Trump hailed the deals from Saturday as bringing in hundreds of billions of dollars of investments in the U.S., along with jobs.
Critics, however, pointed out that the region will not benefit by the addition of more weapons. “In the powder keg that is the Middle East, this sale may simply light a fuse that sends the region, and us, deeper down the rabbit hole of perpetual military conflict,” said the Senator Chris Murphy from Democratic Party on HuffPost.
Trump’s goal, as he meets with dozens of leaders from the Gulf and the wider Muslim world, is to shape a new Middle East coalition. His current embrace of this region is a sharp turnabout from his previous comments, including those during his campaign.
“Traditional Arab allies welcome the U.S. back because they believe it is largely on their terms: a U.S. that is clearly anti-Iran and anti-political Islam, a U.S. that de-emphasizes political reform and human rights, a U.S. that is in business mode and a White House that seems more accessible than in the past eight years,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But he believes that Arab leaders might be in for a surprise. “There is a lot of projection and wishfulness in the Gulf view of Trump’s America. There is plenty of inflated expectations,” said Hokayem.