Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s International Diplomatic Editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
For a president who likes to be liked, Donald Trump’s Saudi Arabia visit is going blow smoke in all the right places.
The desert kingdom, where he is expected to meet dozens of Muslim, Arab and regional leaders, seems an increasingly attractive launch pad for his first ever world tour.
In the Middle East, leaders get Trump because they recognize a kindred spirit: A strongman with a predilection for events going his way.
He is one of their own, and they know just how to handle him: Stroke his ego, which has recently taken a beating.
This week brought crushing criticism of his handling of classified intelligence with an adversary, Russia’s Foreign Minister. The news came hard on the heels of a week where loyalty, or lack of it, got Trump all fired up – enough to fire his FBI chief.
A dose of Arab autocrats singing his praises could be just the tonic Trump needs.
When both King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with Trump at the White House they lavished praise on him.
In April King Abdullah, who has long depended on US largesse to stabilize his pint-sized but powerful kingdom, was particularly fulsome “I am very delighted for your vision,” he said before repeating less than a minute later, “I am very delighted that you have the vision.”
Then a month later Abbas, who has even more at stake – peace for his people – served up a doozy. “Your courageous stewardship and your wisdom, as well as your great negotiating ability, I believe, with the grace of God and with all of your effort, we believe that we can be partners,” he told Trump.
Both leaders then slipped in their requests for help between the heavily buttered slices of pump-up pie.
Abdullah tailored his push for Palestinian/Israeli peace around Trump’s top national security priority, which is fighting terrorism. “The President understands that if we don’t solve this problem,” he said, “how are we going to win the global fight against terrorism, which is his number-one priority?”
In Saudi Arabia, Trump can expect ample servings of everyone’s agenda, from Middle East peace to Iran to oil to his attitude towards Muslims.
Having studied the photos of the smiles on the faces of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak meeting with the US President, his Middle East allies may have concluded that jollying Trump along is for sure going to deliver for them too.
The tightrope Trump faces in Saudi Arabia is taut with subtlety and context. One misstep, one nuance not grasped, and decades of difficult diplomatic relations-building could be damaged.
Too much or too little information, or an ambiguous answer that hints at a flimsy grasp of facts, could be all that it takes.
Trump’s February comments about Palestinian/Israeli peace – “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like” – is a top issue for his audience in Saudi Arabia and won’t wash with his hosts.
The Middle East is full of contradictions and ugly pitfalls, and among the potentates he’ll be meeting Trump is a newbie to the full-on power they enjoy and to the details of what both unites and divides them.
His reputation at home as a mercurial novice bulldozing through the intricacies of the Oval Office will make him an intriguing yet potentially toxic ally, vulnerable to exploitation, or worse, misinterpretation.
‘A strong, respectful message’
Trump will be in the most venerated Muslim country in the world, home to Islam’s two holiest sites and a destination for 15 million religious pilgrims a year.
Trump’s national security advisor, HR McMaster, laid out what will be in store for the emirs, kings and presidents Trump meets in Saudi Arabia: “He will call for Muslim leaders to promote a peaceful vision of Islam.”
It sounds simple, but as most Muslims and their leaders think they do that already, getting the tone right will be key.
McMaster intends Trump to do just that and deliver “a strong, respectful message that the United States and the entire civilized world expects our Muslim allies to take a strong stand against radical Islamist ideology.”
But Trump’s host in the conservative kingdom, King Salman, will find his global standing among the more than one billion Muslim faithful will also be on the line.
Islam has no pope, so Salman, chief guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, is about as big as it gets in the Muslim world.
On the Arab Street the cards are already stacked against Trump. He earned the ire of many with his failed travel restrictions on several Muslim majority nations, not to mention his colorful campaign rhetoric about a “Muslim ban.”
A failure by Trump to calibrate his comments could cost some goodwill with King Salman, the US’s most powerful ally in the region.
Given Trump’s bumpy track record in DC, the fact that Salman is willing to roll the dice on such an unpredictable guest speaks volumes about what Trump has to offer. And Trump does offer a lot.
A change from Obama
Not least, to the Saudis he will offer a welcome change from President Obama. The Saudis, like many of their Gulf friends, grew out of awe of Obama when he embraced the 2011 “Arab Spring” and refused to back Saudi allies like President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, figured the Saudis needed to look to themselves for protection and began massive arms spending, elevating the country to the third-largest global defense and security purchaser.
Paradoxically that also worked well for America. Trump’s ties to the country now include $100 billion arms deal as the Saudis continue to bulk up their military muscle.
The Saudis also assess Trump to be much more a kindred spirit on Iran than Obama was.
Like Trump, the Saudis had a tough time getting their head around the former President’s nuclear arms deal with Iran, which to them enabled their biggest regional and religious enemy to challenge their dominance.
In a recent and rare TV interview, Mohammed bin Salman – Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, deputy crown prince and shaper-in-chief of the country’s future – revealed just how bad tensions are with Iran.
He appeared to rule out rapprochement with his country’s rival, saying, “how do we communicate? The Saudis’ logic is based on the notion that Imam Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam, will come and that they must control the Muslim world in preparation for his arrival.
For a man fresh to power with a big army, already up to his armpits in a war with Iran-backed forces in Yemen and staring over his northern border to Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria, it sounds a lot like fighting talk.
Next stop, Israel
When you couple that with some of Trump’s anti-Iranian campaign invective, the potential for a combustible alignment is higher now than it has been in several decades.
It’s part of Trump’s attractiveness to the Saudis and other Gulf allies that he feels unbounded by the conventions of past Presidents and the constrictions of his advisors.
The danger for him is becoming hoisted on his own hubris, left hanging in the wind by allies only too eager to egg him on to deliver on their needs while forgetting America’s.
After the Saudi stop on Trump’s tour comes Israel.
Any missteps before he arrives there could fuel an incendiary reaction and burn hopes of a scandal-free trip that bolsters Trump’s image as a global leader, confidently and capably striding the world stage.