Donald Trump has made an attempt to stake a claim as a figure who can mobilize the Muslim world against extremism, using his much-anticipated speech on Islam as a rallying call for global cooperation rooted in reform, trade and faith.
Speaking in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in front of leaders from more than 40 Muslim nations, the US president vowed to meet “history’s great test” by conquering extremism with the help of countries who have suffered most from it.
In a marked divergence from the strident anti-Islamic rhetoric that characterized his campaign, he instead pledged not to “lecture” or “tell other people how to live … or how to worship”.
The address was the most significant in Trump’s five embattled months in office, establishing him as an ambitious leader, prepared to revamp views and policies in order to win trust.
Trump pointedly equated acts carried out by Iran with those carried out by Islamic State and al-Qaida a rebuff to Barack Obama, whose legacy in the region was a pivot away from a longstanding alliance with Saudi Arabia towards dealing with Tehran.
Invoking religious references throughout his 40-minute address, Trump urged Muslim countries to take the lead in the fight against terrorism a message that his predecessor had also seen as central to US policy. But his decision to make Riyadh his first call on a debut overseas trip was another clear departure from Obama, whose address in Cairo in January 2009 also aimed to reset US relations with the Muslim world.
After waiting nervously for the speech a centerpiece of the US leader’s visit some Saudi and regional leaders reacted heartily, expressing relief that its tone and message had been delicately pitched, avoiding cultural minefields.
But Middle East observers said the speech, while rich in rhetoric, delivered nothing definitive about how such a coalition would work. Trump seemed to convey that his very presence in the room was a watershed moment in a long fraught regional history, leading some in Riyadh to label the address as hubris over substance.
“This gathering is unique in the history of nations,” Trump said, speaking alongside the Saudi monarch, King Salman. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this evil for you. Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden if we are going to defeat terrorism, to meet history’s great test and conquer extremism. Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up safe from fear and free from violence. Will we be indifferent in the presence of evil?”
Trump framed the US position towards the region as one of “principled realism rooted in common values and shared interests. We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms not sudden intervention.”
This was a nod to a widespread economic and cultural reform programme that Saudi Arabia is implementing, which aims to overhaul a sclerotic public sector, create opportunities for a disenfranchised youth, empower women and open up to the world. No mention was made, however, of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
In Riyadh, Trump’s address won immediate plaudits from leaders in the room, particularly his acknowledgment that Arab Muslim nations had borne the brunt of the killing in the age of Islamic extremism.
“Terrorism has spread across the world. But the path to peace begins right here, on this ancient soil, in this sacred land. America is prepared to stand with you – in pursuit of shared interests and common security,” he said. “But the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.”
Trump said US officials and private businesses had booked close to $450bn (£350bn) in deals during his visit, which he had billed as a package deal, offering trade and legitimacy, in return for lucrative agreements that would create US jobs.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia came on the same weekend as a presidential election was held in Iran where the moderate leader Hassan Rouhani was re-elected for a second term. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, has no popular vote and its leadership has long been a hereditary monarchy which controls nearly all aspects of the state.
One Iranian posted a video of a young man and a young woman dancing in Iran on Instagram, saying: “Our response to Trump”. The video was shared widely online.
Ahead of the speech, one senior Saudi official said he worried about the tenure of Trump’s administration, which faces significant hurdles when he returns to Washington, with former FBI chief James Comey, whom he sacked earlier this month, due to publicly testify about his departure.
“It is well known in Riyadh that he has problems at home and may not be terribly consistent as a thinker,” the official said. “Being able to adapt is one thing, but we have never had to work with a president like this. It is new ground for everyone.”
The reception elsewhere in the city was largely warm. “It was reassuring because it was a return to the traditional relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia,” said Saad al-Tamimi, 45, an officer in the National Guard. “America is a great friend of Saudi Arabia and the friendship is rooted, regardless of our possible disagreements.”
Faisal al-Otairi described Trump’s sharp rejection of Iran as a potential ally as the centerpiece of the speech. “Iran’s arbitrary actions that have caused turmoil in the Middle East have been stopped,” he said. “It was better than Obama.”
In Cairo, Ahmed Shefai questioned whether Trump was being truthful when he said that America wasn’t seeking to impose its way of life on others. In reaction to Trump’s “message of peace and love”, he said: “Speech is always different from action, and I don’t see any kind of action until now. Obama gave a speech about peace before and so did Bush. Later on it was war.”
An Egyptian blogger known by the name of Big Pharaoh also watched the Riyadh speech in Cairo. “Unlike Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world, Trump’s speech will fall on deaf ears. Nobody thinks he means well,” he said.