Meeting with the Emir of Kuwait at the White House this past week, President Trump hit the right notes. He has forged a strong friendship with this Gulf nation, and it will serve America's interests.
The president on Thursday touted his work with Kuwait this year, expediting State Department approval of a $5 billion order of F-18 fighter jets. The State Department is notoriously slow to approve foreign military sales, and America's allies and workers suffer from it's grinding bureaucracy. But with Kuwait's sovereign wealth fund investing around $300 billion in the U.S. economy, it makes sense for Trump to draw on that potential.
Trump responded well to questions about the stand-off between Qatar and other Sunni monarchies including Kuwait. Qatar has infuriated its erstwhile partners by aligning itself with Iran, funding terrorist groups, and by empowering Al Jazeera's investigative journalism. Hardly looking like an isolationist, Trump offered himself as a mediator, stating, "I think you would have a deal worked out very quickly."
Asked by a Saudi journalist whether he remains committed to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump presented honest optimism, "They say it is the world's most complex and difficult deal. You know that. But it is something that could happen. I believe that the relationships that we have with both can help." Although neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority have shown recent energy in the peace process, Trump's efforts here are rightly welcomed by the Sunni monarchies. And they matter for U.S. security in helping to address a conflict that fuels Islamic extremism.
Trump did more. To alleviate Kuwait's greatest fear, Trump called out "the Iranian regime, who supports terror groups and radical militias." This U.S. assurance of Kuwaiti security reduces its leaders inclination to fund Sunni terrorist groups to counterbalancing Iran. But Trump wanted something in return, again pushing the Sunni monarchies to step up efforts to stanch illicit terrorist financing. This priority is rendering dividends in Kuwait, where the government is cracking down on private financiers for groups including Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Trump's strong Kuwait play matters for yet another reason. The kingdom's aging leader offers an example for the co-existence of Islam and modernity. Today, Kuwait has women serving in its parliament. Its press is one of the freest and most creative in the Arab world. Kuwait's broader record on women's rights is also inspiring. As the IMF noted in 2013, "Kuwait's labor force participation rate for Kuwaiti women (53 percent) is slightly above the world average (51 percent) and much higher than the Middle East/North Africa average (21 percent)." The female participation rate is also higher than the Kuwaiti male participation rate.
These things matter to American security in that they offer a reform template for other regional monarchies such as Saudi Arabia. Absent that reform, as oil prices continue to decline and youthful populations — 40 percent of Kuwaitis are under 24 years old — struggle to find opportunity, terrorists will be the beneficiaries.
Relations with Kuwaiti are imperfect. America disagrees with the emirate over the Syrian Civil War, where the Kuwaitis favor tougher action against Assad. Still, unlike former President Barack Obama's blowout with the Sunni monarchies over his rapprochement with Iran, Trump has kept disagreements isolated, partly by relying on good advice. He also seems to have a knack for Arab culture and its dependence on exchanged respect and personal bonds. This was shown at the press conference's conclusion, as the two leaders left the White House stage. Recognizing the Emir's 88 years of age, Trump held hands with the monarch to help him down. Holding of hands in Arab culture is a deep sign of affection and respect, and one that Mr. Trump's predecessor deliberately ignored.
But it matters for American interests. And it was well done.