In Riyadh, Trump took a selective stand on extremism, sent a clear message to Iran

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President Trump's speech was warmly-received in Saudi Arabia. Photo by Mandel Nagan/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump’s speech was warmly-received in Saudi Arabia. Photo by Mandel Nagan/AFP/Getty Images

The Royal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not known for modest gestures. President Trump’s official visit this weekend included sword dancing, fighter jets trailed by red, white and blue contrails and three major summits set behind a gilded palatial backdrop. And on Sunday, all eyes were on Trump’s speech on Islam where he addressed leaders and high ranking officials from more than 50 countries.

Trump’s speech turned on three main themes. The beginning of the speech focused on extremism and terrorism as a threat to all. “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations,” Trump said, pointedly turning away from his past assessments of Islam as a religion of hatred. Trump’s shift in tone is widely seen as an attempt at to reset relations with the Muslim World.

The second point, in keeping with his “America First” platform, is the imperative on Middle Eastern nations to take the lead in stamping out this threat. President Trump raised his voice as he delivered the emotional climax of the speech: “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and 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.”

His last point focused on Iran’s role in what he called “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.”

“From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen,” Trump said, “Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.” Saudi monarch King Salman also singled out Iran in his introductory remarks, even saying the Islamic Revolution in Iran marked the birth of terrorism: “this country, did not witness terrorism or extremism until Khomeini revolution emerged in 1979.”

In this sense, Trump’s speech aligned with Saudi’s vision of the region but it may have presented an overly-simplified version of events and responsibilities, some Middle East watchers say.

“When it comes to the inspiration of the ideology of extremist groups, Saudi is not innocent. The global spread of Wahhabism is critical,” says Farah Pandith, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. “ISIS used Saudi textbooks when they first went in to build their so-called Caliphate. The ideology of Wahabism is closely connected to their worldview.”

In addition to trying to reset, Trump is rewriting his own history in regards to Saudi, having in the past suggested a Saudi government link to the 9/11 attacks.

“It was a phenomenal trip, phenomenally successful,” said Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir in an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier following the speech. “He set the foundation for the creation of a partnership to fight extremism and terrorism and terror financing…and so overall it was an incredible success,” he said.

Al-Jubeir’s Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, was less laudatory. He tweeted “Fresh from real elections — attacked by @POTUS in that bastion of democracy & moderation.”

The events in Riyadh over the weekend focused on just one front of the war against terrorism and violent extremism but the message to Iran was comprehensive and crystal clear.

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