Washington DC – Donald Trump heads to Saudi Arabia on Friday on his first foreign trip as president to repair relations with the United States’ closest Arab ally, restart the Arab-Israeli peace process and, potentially, reassert the US security role in the region.
Going to Saudi Arabia first is a highly symbolic move for President Trump who is struggling with political troubles at home, but is drawing optimism from Arab leaders despite his deep unpopularity in Arab public opinion for his anti-Muslim commentary during the 2016 US election campaign.
The president will hold a series of meetings starting on Saturday with Saudi rulers, including King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Saudis want more US help confronting Iran and armed groups, as well as private investment in Saudi companies.
“You have a president who clearly, despite many negative comments he’s made about Saudi Arabia, is treating them as an ally. The optics will be very good,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington DC.
Trump will hold a separate session with leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to discuss the civil war in Syria and potential “de-escalation zones” to provide safe areas for civilians.
The US president will lunch with 56 invited Arab and Muslim leaders to discuss combating “extremism” and cracking down on illicit financing of armed groups, according to the White House.
Trump will not come away empty-handed. The president expects to ink a $100bn arms sale with Saudi Arabia. Several leading American CEOs from companies will be meeting with Saudi counterparts to discuss potential investments in the kingdom’s privatisation drive, Saudi Vision 2030.
“The Saudis have every stake in showing the president a good time. Partly it’s driven by the fact that, unlike the Obama administration, they see Mr Trump as someone that shares their view of a rising Iran and the problem of the Sunni jihadists, which are the twin threats that are basically driving this administration, the Israelis, and key Sunni states into a closer alignment with one another,” Miller told Al Jazeera.
After visiting Saudi Arabia, Trump will fly to Israel for meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then to the Vatican in Rome, where he will seek an audience with Pope Francis before heading to Brussels for a NATO summit, talks with EU leaders, and then a meeting of the G-7 industrial nations in Sicily.
“The Middle East leaders, particularly in the Gulf and Jordan, were not pleased with the way Obama handled Middle East policy from their point of view and, as a consequence, just because they have a different president leading foreign policy, that is welcomed,” Shibley Telhami, a professor and pollster at the University of Maryland, told Al Jazeera.
Telhami’s polling shows most Americans want an even-handed US policy in the Middle East, although among Trump’s constituency, people who voted for him, a majority of 70 percent prefer he take Israel’s side. That will create a quandary and some friction for Trump as he attempts to bring Arabs into a regional approach to Palestine.
Expectations among most analysts in Washington are fairly low for the Middle East leg of Trump’s trip. Some analysts, such as Danielle Pletka – vice president for foreign and defence policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute – see a broad opportunity for Trump to reshape US policy in the Middle East.
“There is much that can happen to transform a region that has bedeviled presidents for decades,” Pletka said in an AEI policy posting. “Trump hopes to usher in a new era of Arab cooperation.”
Others such as Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, see Trump’s options in the Middle East constrained by realities of regional politics and power positions on the ground in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
“On all of these things, there is no possibility of great breakthroughs, of policy options that were avoided by Obama and are still available to us, or have somehow been created in the four months that Trump has been president,” O’Hanlon told Al Jazeera. “Don’t expect much to change.”
Undercutting Trump’s credibility and stature as he meets world leaders, Trump’s nascent presidency is troubled at home and may not last a full four years. Four months into his presidency, the White House is operating in chaos.
A special counsel has been appointed to lead the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.
Vulnerable Republicans, facing an anti-Trump backlash at home, are rightly worried they may lose the House of Representatives in 2018 mid-term elections.
Some are beginning to distance themselves from the president whose public approval ratings in the US are at a historically low 37 percent.
Follow William Roberts on Twitter: @BillRoberts3