On May 23, as President Donald Trump flew from Tel Aviv to Rome, one of his advisers boasted to reporters accompanying Trump on Air Force One of the success of his visit to Saudi Arabia. “Donald Trump united the entire Muslim world in a way that it really hasn’t been in many years,” the adviser said, with no hint of irony at such a grandiose claim. Trump was basking in the glow of the grand reception he got in the kingdom—and he used his visit to firmly side with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states in their conflict against Iran.
Less than two weeks later, the Trump aide’s bombastic claim had unraveled. In the early hours of June 5, Saudi Arabia and four of its Arab allies suddenly cut off all diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar, a tiny emirate in the Persian Gulf that is rich in natural gas. The Saudis and their allies accused Qatar of financing terrorism; supporting Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas; and undermining Arab efforts to isolate Iran. They also imposed a partial blockade, sealing off Qatar’s only land border (with Saudi Arabia) and restricting air and sea travel to and from the peninsula.
The Saudis, along with allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, were clearly emboldened by Trump’s unequivocal support. Instead of uniting the Muslim world, or even the smaller realm of Sunni Arab monarchies, his visit has thrown regional alliances into disarray. The Saudis’ dream of a united front against their rival Iran is in jeopardy, as even some of their allies worry about a Saudi-fomented coup or war to bring Qatar to heel.
In a speech before dozens of leaders from across the Muslim world who had gathered in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, on May 21, Trump condemned Iran for stoking “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” and he urged fellow Muslim states to isolate Tehran. “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace,” Trump said, “all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”
Trump made no mention of Saudi Arabia’s destabilizing actions in the Middle East, especially its war in Yemen, which has killed nearly 10,000 Yemenis and left 6.8 million people—a quarter of Yemen’s population—on the brink of famine. By blatantly taking sides and singling out Iran for supporting terrorism and instigating sectarianism, Trump will only exacerbate the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and worsen sectarian conflict in the region. It’s clear that Trump has waded into complex religious and political dynamics he doesn’t grasp.
Since he took office, Trump and his top advisers have shifted US rhetoric toward more explicit support for Saudi Arabia and constant criticism of Iran. The transformation was complete during Trump’s visit to the kingdom, which he chose as the first stop on his maiden overseas trip as president. In his speech to nearly 50 Arab and Muslim leaders, Trump reinforced the comments of his host, King Salman. “The Iranian regime represents the tip of the spear of global terrorism,” the king said in his effusive speech introducing Trump.