Donald Trump described Muslims as sick people who have hatred on their minds and he proposed banning them from entering the United States.
Yet surprisingly, many people in Saudi Arabia, a nation considered the birthplace of Islam where citizens are required to be Muslim, don’t hold his words against him.
In more than a dozen interviews, residents suggested the billionaire businessman turned Republican president simply was using stinging rhetoric to appeal to supporters and defeat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
He was, they say, the ultimate salesman.
“What Donald Trump said before he was president was just marketing,” Adeel Alhathlol, 38, a Riyadh businessman who imports sound systems, said through a translator. “Because he’s a businessman, he knew how to make followers. His goal is not to be racist but just to wake up people.”
Trump has largely backed off his harsh criticism of Islam since he was inaugurated in January. He even softened his tone during his two-day visit to Riyadh last week, praising Islam as “one of the world’s greatest faiths” and calling for tolerance and respect for all faiths.
If there’s one thing I have learned about American politics since he was nominated, expect the unexpected
Eman al Hafjan, 36, a university professor
Though his administration is still seeking to halt temporarily the entry into the United States of citizens from six Muslim-majority nations, many Saudis don’t consider it a Muslim ban. Of 50 or so Muslim nations, only six are included, including two of Saudi Arabia’s bitter rivals, Syria and Iran, but not Saudi Arabia, 15 of whose citizens were among the 19 9/11 hijackers.
Waheed Mohammed A. Alghamdi, 37, who works for the city of Yanbu in the western part of the kingdom, said through a translator that the reason Trump hasn’t repeated what he said about Muslims recently is because as president he needs to maintain a serious relationship with Saudi Arabia, considered the leading Muslim nation and an important partner in the fight against terrorism.
“Donald Trump is so smart to use the audience to support his campaign,” said Alghamdi, who said he was fired from being a teacher because of his outspoken views. “He’s a businessman. It doesn’t mean he’s racist. They know it’s just propaganda. He’s a smart guy.”
Trump is extremely popular with the leaders of Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, who treated him like royalty during his visit. They can relate to his personality, his black-and-white outlook on life and his background running a family business – an apt description for all the Gulf nations – and they were relieved he didn’t push them to change the way they run their own countries.
In Saudi Arabia, people aren’t allowed to speak against King Salman and his government, which controls the media, forbids demonstrations and doesn’t allow for political parties or trade unions. It is likely that Trump would have faced protests upon his arrival in Riyadh had they been allowed.
Several people had agreed to interviews with McClatchy but canceled at the last minute because they said they were afraid of repercussions from the government. Those who went through with the interviews agreed to speak about American politics but not Saudi politics.
The things he said about Muslims from when he ran for president has served him to wake up all the Republicans to support him but when he won he didn’t do anything. It was marketing, smart marketing for himself
Mohammed Alhamza, 42, a social researcher and writer
Some may have said they don’t oppose Trump simply because he’s popular with their own government. Others, including those who are outspoken on social media, say they don’t mind Trump, who they never believed, or his supporters, who don’t have the power to act even if they agreed with Trump.
“I don’t think people dislike him that much,” said Eman al Hafjan, 36, a university professor in Riyadh. “I think they see him as strange, somewhat entertaining, because we have very little political participation. We are very passive, not by choice.”
Mohammed Jawad, 30, of Alahsa in the eastern part of the country, who manages international training contracts for a company owned by the government, said he has for the most part moved past what Trump said before he became president, though he remains troubled that he has not deleted all his anti-Islamic tweets.
“We are really glad that it seems different than what he said during his campaign,” he said. “But I have some questions about credibility and willingness to solve the issues.”
In recent months, Trump has acted in ways that appealed to the Saudis. He blamed Iran for devastation in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, agreed to the largest single arms deal in U.S. history, and launched a missile strike on Syria after President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on his own people.
During his visit, Saudis took to social media to lavish praise on his daughter, Ivanka, some of which rubbed off on Trump. One man even said he named his newborn child after her.
Ahmed Gh, 36, an English teacher from Alasha in the eastern part of the country, said he prefers Trump to his predecessor, Barack Obama. “Maybe he will do something,” Gh said. “He’s a businessman.”
Toward the end of his administration, Saudis had soured on Obama and his policies on the civil wars in nearby Syria and Yemen and his implementation of a deal that allows Iran to pursue a nuclear energy and research program but prevents it from producing a nuclear weapon.
“Obama was living in his utopia world or something,” said Abdulnasser Gharem, 43, a well-known Saudi artist. “He was trying to postpone things. He wasn’t taking action but this guy is.”
Gharem, who said he’s forbidden from showing his provocative artwork in Saudi Arabia, said Trump’s recent visit was good for the country, which welcomed him with a red carpet, booming cannons and seven Saudi jets that flew overhead in V-formation, trailing red, white and blue smoke. Saudis were flattered to be the first stop of Trump’s first foreign trip as president. “I can’t deny it’s a good thing,” Gharem said. “He activated the whole country.”
But Huda, Mohammed, 47, of Riyadh who retired from overseeing special needs curricula for the education department, said she is confused about why Trump chose to come to Saudi Arabia first after saying so many negative things. “He said crazy things when he was campaigning,” she said through a translator.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia struck a series of deals totaling more than $350 billion over 10 years during the president’s visit, what Trump hopes is the first step towards an even bigger investment by the kingdom.
“It really doesn’t matter what he said – what matters is what he’s going to deliver,” Saudi economist Ihsan Buhulaiga said. “I will look at results and deeds more than talk.”
Buhulaiga acknowledged that during his campaign Trump said things that weren’t fair to Muslims but he praised his Riyadh speech to leaders of the world’s Muslim countries, saying he showed respect to Islam as a faith and recognized Muslims as important. “Next we need to see if he will walk the walk,” he said.
President Donald Trump’s nine-day maiden foreign trip began in Riyadh and included stops in Israel, the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily.
Some Saudis said they are less concerned about what Trump said about Islam and more worried about his repeated remarks that Saudi Arabia failed to pay its fair share for U.S.’s defense assistance.
The kingdom, which relies on oil to fund much of the government, has had to cut back in recent months as the price of oil has dropped. They don’t want to see further cuts.
Saudis, who use Twitter and WhatsApp instead of Facebook to get their message out, said concerns about money dominated social media during Trump’s visit, showing images like one where Trump slips his hand into the pocket to take money as he hugs King Salman.
“It’s recorded what he said – that he said he would let the Gulf states pay for improving the economy in the States,” said Aziza al Yousef, 60, a human rights activist who was detained by police after she drove a car, which women aren’t allowed to do. “They are worried . . . what are you going to offer us except taking money from us?”
Mohammed Alhamza, 42, a social researcher and writer in Riyadh, said Saudis always have had better relations with Republican presidents, including both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, than Democrats because they are more business-minded.
Alhamza said Trump’s campaign remarks “annoyed” him even though he knew the whole time it was just a gimmick and that as president Trump wouldn’t want to make himself the enemy of the world’s more than 1.6 billion Muslims. He also had faith that other branches of the U.S. government would rein Trump in.
He cited, as an example, the Trump administration’s attempt at a travel ban on residents from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Several federal courts have blocked it, including the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which acted Thursday.
“The American system isn’t run by one,” he said through a translator during an interview at his house. “This is a good thing.”