1 – Pro-Trump supporters and media love it: FoxNews called it “Strong, tone perfect.” John Bolton said he felt it was an “excellent speech” that reached locals in Riyadh, international community and constituents. He praised how it dealt with “radical Islamic extremism” and “Iran.”
2 – Anti-Trump voices and media dislike it: CNN had one critic after another claiming it sucked up to the Saudis, who they called Wahhabis and whose country they accused of birthing the 9/11 hijackers. The speech was “anti-Iran” and showed that Trump is “for sale” because it came after an arms deal. The same speech, if John Kerry had said it, would probably get higher marks from critics. It’s the messenger they dislike, even if they think the substance is problematic.
3 – Trump spoke to a big audience of around 50 Islamic countries, most of which sent their heads of state. This is likely the largest gathering of Islamic countries in one place to listen to an American president. That in itself is unprecedented.
4 – Trump was comfortable and deliberate: Without the usual gusto, he spoke in a calm and clear manner, a huge contrast with the campaign and his controversial and offensive comments towards Muslims and Syrian refugees. He seemed to have turned over a new leaf, going into the lion’s den as it were and emerging with all the lions clapping. He appealed to the audience with such arguments that Muslims are the primary victims of terror, suffering the “deadliest toll” in the last few years with tens of thousands killed.
5 – “Terrorists worship death.” Although Trump mentioned Islamic terror, going off script where he was supposed to say “Islamist,” he generally argued that terrorists are extremists and have no religion and have no God. This is part of the general narrative about terror that tries to pretend it comes from something other than religion, as if pretending the KKK came from something other than white supremacy. Trump said there must be “no excusing” terror, but the whole notion that it is just worshipping death and not connected deeply with religion is a classic regional excuse.
6 – “Drive them out,” the high point of the speech the US President encouraged communities to drive out the extremists, from communities and places of worship. This is an important point, since many communities coddle terrorists. Consider the 5,000 ISIS members from Europe, who listened to hate preachers before leaving for “Jihad.”
7 – Kurds. Although the Kurdistan Regional Government was apparently not represented, Trump mentioned Kurds in relation to the battle of Mosul.
8 – Jews. Trump referred to Jews on several occasions, urging countries to stand together against persecution of Jews. This is a big difference than what some of these leaders have heard in the past by their peers such as Malaysia’s Mohammed Mahathir, whose 2003 speech at an Islamic Summit was greeted with applause even though he spouted anti-semitism.
9 – Trump sought to talk about coexistence and the “three Abrahamic faiths,” which encouraged the Saudi King to also give a rejoinder about how the Kingdom supports coexistence and peace. This is a bit strange since Saudi basically bans other religions and has been behind educational materials that teach intolerance. Where is the “coexistence” in Saudi Arabia? The churches? The allowing of women to wear what they want? How about less beheadings?
10 – Iran is very bad: Trump singled out Iran as a country behind chaos and instability in the region He noted that it supported Assad who commits “unspeakable crimes.” Iran elected Rouhani two days before the speech, but really so what? “Let’s be clear, Iran is in hands of Russia and is a state sponsor of terror,” says John Bolton. Although some see “moderates” in Tehran, Trump saw mostly a worrisome regime.
11 – Iran is behind terror: Trump accused Iran of being behind terror, which obviously plays well in Riyadh. He didn’t want to offend his hosts to remind them and their allies in Qatar or Pakistan or Sudan of their problematic relationship with groups such as Hamas, or the Taliban in the past.
12 – The people of Iran are ok and so are the Shia: Trump tried to encourage the room not to judge between sect or religion, and referenced Shia. He attempted to assuage his hard words for Iran, by noting he was not talking about the Iranian people. The king of Saudi agreed in a speech in response, condemning Iran while not the “people.”
13 – Trump mentioned Hamas and Hezbollah: “ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas are blocking the future of the region.” Although Iran was singled out as a country, Hamas and Hezbollah were singled out as terror organizations. Judith Butler has singled them out also as “progressives” and part of the Global Left.” The room listening has a problem here, because some states such as Turkey have had relations with Hamas. For others like Sisi, it’s not a problem.
14 – Comparison with Obama’s 2009 speech: Trump and Obama both referenced the civilization of the region. “As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam,” said Obama. Trump called the area, the birthplace of civilization awaiting a new renaissance, science, art, commerce to inspire mankind, cities built on ruins.”
15 – Trump 2017 vs. Obama 2009: Both spoke for about an hour. Obama and Trump both referenced mutual interests, but Obama blamed “extremists” on “exploiting differences” with the West. Trump saw more of a war of good and evil. Obama referenced America’s failures, such as US “overthrow” of democracy in Iran, Trump didn’t see the problem as more of America’s faults, pegging the blame squarely on terrorists.
16 – Trump 2017 vs. Obama 2009: Obama sought to speak to students and youth, Trump sought to speak to his peers. Which is more effective is unclear, looking back years in the Middle East after Obama, few seem to recall the Cairo speech with affection, if they remember it all. The region is fickle, but there is a perception of Trump among some (probably many) as a strongman similar in style to local leaders. The region is not pleasant to those seen as weak, and Obama was eventually seen as weak.
17 – “This is the speech Iran’s hardliners wanted,”: For some critics Trump’s speech plays into the hands of the “hardliners,” but this is the common theme whenever someone condemns something in the Middle East. Trump was also accused of being a recruiting tool for ISIS when he passed his “Muslim ban.” But there is no evidence that ISIS or “hardliners” actually grow more powerful, just because they use the US as a foil. They condemn the US either way. The idea that critiquing the KKK makes it “stronger”, is nonsense. ISIS is a kind of KKK-Nazi organization. Supposedly it prays on disenfranchised Muslims. But there’s no evidence that Trump’s Riyadh speech alienated Muslims, except some in the Iranian regime. And they hated America anyway. There’s no way to placate them.
18 – Critics claim Trump’s speech gives a blank check to the regimes present to crack down on human rights in the guise of going after “terrorists.” This is particularly a criticism of Egypt, but could also be said to be one Saudi or Turkey might use. The reality is most of these regimes don’t need a blank check from Trump to abuse human rights. They already abuse human rights. Will there be more beheadings in Riyadh now? Probably not. Condemning abuses of human rights among these regimes, such as Sudan, hasn’t made them less. It isn’t clear what affect the speech will have. Mostly it makes these countries feel good about themselves.
19 – Saudis are basking in glory: This is a big net win for Saudi Arabia which now feels like it resumes a mantle of leadership in the region. It lost its way in recent decades as events outpaced it. It watched one by one as regimes it liked fell apart and terror and Iran ate away at it’s influence. It got the cold shoulder under Obama. Now it feels like it has the loving embrace of the Americans and their arms industry again.
20 – Trump, the Saudis and Jordanians all referenced Israel and Palestinian peace as an important agenda for the region. With Trump flying off to Jerusalem he will be paying pip service to this topic, but unclear what he will do about it.