A constrained Middle East agenda awaits Donald Trump’s third UNGA

The US president's approach may be hampered by outside factors, including a weakend Benjamin Netanyahu

President Donald Trump arrives at Ellington Airport to attend "Howdy Modi: Shared Dreams, Bright Futures" event with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Webster, Texas. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Despite talking up his intentions for solving multiple crises in the Middle East, US President Donald Trump may find his hands tied at this year's United Nations General Assembly meeting.

Mr Trump will arrive in New York on Sunday night for his third UN General Assembly (UNGA), but he’s unlikely to be the star of the show this year. He is skipping two major UN-hosted summits on climate change and healthcare this year, choosing to concentrate on Tuesday’s general assembly address and a summit on religious freedom the day before.

In his UNGA speech, Mr Trump is expected to “affirm America's leadership role in the rules-based international system and the need to work collectively,” the senior US official added. But he will reiterate a recurrent theme for his administration “to uphold the sovereignty and independence of member states, especially on issues of national security.”

The Middle East is set to form the centrepiece of US efforts at the UN this year, with a focus on Iran, Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts and the formation of an “Arab NATO”. Mr Trump is planning a series of bilateral meetings over the UNGA week with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Iraqi President Barham Salih and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah El Sisi, among others. Mr Trump may also meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday but the White House has not yet confirmed such a meeting.

Chief on the table of topics with Middle Eastern and other world leaders, including the UK’s Boris Johnson, will be Iran.

“Our overarching concerns with Iran's escalatory violence is going to be a theme of the [UN] conference,” the US official said. "The attack on the Saudi infrastructure really is an attack on everyone who consumes that energy.”

A meeting with the Iranians themselves, however, is unlikely. Before the Saudi Aramco oil facility attacks, which the US blamed on Iran, Mr Trump signalled his willingness to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. But following the events in Saudi Arabia and lack of diplomatic progress on the Iranian nuclear standoff, he declared on Sunday he had “no intention” of a meeting with Iranian officials. For his part, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last week the countries would not meet “at any level” during UNGA.

“I think there's no conceivable likelihood of a Trump-Rouhani meeting - short of a complete reversal of US policy,” said Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution.

Still, side meetings on the issue are taking place in New York. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met his Omani counterpart Yusuf bin Alawi on Saturday. Mr Pompeo was due to meet Iraqi President Barham Salih and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad on Sunday.

The official also announced that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be convening a meeting of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) foreign ministers. MESA, sometimes known as the Arab NATO, includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Jordan. Egypt withdrew from MESA in April.

Yasmine Farouk, a Gulf specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued that although the attacks on Saudi Arabia may have brought more urgency to the formation of MESA, the same hurdles which have impeded its launch remain.

"The lack of proportional US military action in response to the [Aramco] attacks reminded MESA countries what American withdrawal from the Middle East means," Ms Farouk told The National. 

She added that, in theory, this “could play in favour of advancing a defence alliance between those countries, but it hasn’t so far.”

With Egypt leaving the potential alliance it is unclear who would provide the ground forces for such a coalition, explained Ms Farouk. The MESA countries have not yet agreed on foundig priciples for the alliance despite repeated meetings between Washington, Riyadh and New York over the last two years.

On the Palestinian-Israeli front, once again, the chance of US-led progress looks scarce. Mr Trump has no meetings scheduled with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and his ally Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cancelled his trip to New York following his election setback. The administration has also delayed the roll out of its peace plan until after the formation of a new Israeli government.