White House

Despite his anti-Islam rhetoric, Trump will find a warm welcome in Saudi Arabia

Images of President Trump and Saudi King Salman are displayed throughout the Saudi capital in anticipation of Trump's two-day visit.
Images of President Trump and Saudi King Salman are displayed throughout the Saudi capital in anticipation of Trump's two-day visit. McClatchy

As a private citizen, businessman and presidential candidate, Donald Trump unleashed a long series of blistering attacks on the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

He accused the nation of blowing up the World Trade Center, treating women like slaves and failing to spend enough on defense. He demanded that its leaders send the United States a decade’s worth of free oil. And he called one of the nation’s princes goofy.

But as president, Trump has abandoned the stinging rhetoric he was known for in lieu of a friendlier message as he looks to restore relations with the country, which soured during his predecessor’s tenure.

President Donald Trump begins his nine-day maiden foreign trip Saturday, which will comprise stops in Riyadh, Jerusalem, the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily.

Trump, who has previously done business in Saudi Arabia, will arrive in Riyadh on Saturday for a two-day visit – the surprising first stop of his ambitious maiden foreign trip as president –armed with pledges to work with Saudi leaders to fight terrorism, boost economic development and counter nearby Iran.

“Inherent in his choices is his desire to be different from Obama,” said Philip Gordon, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s no secret that in the end of the Obama years there was a lot of Saudi and Gulf discontent with U.S. policy on Iran, Syria, Yemen. And Trump’s different. He’s going to go and say he’s different.”

The day before he was to arrive, Saudi Arabia, home to some of Islam’s holiest sites, was getting ready.

Hundreds of U.S. and Saudi flags were on display around the capital city. Massive billboards with photos of Trump and the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, and the words “Together We Prevail” were erected above the streets next to others showing President Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with King Salman’s father in 1945. Some roads were already closed as parts of the president’s entourage began arriving.

“This administration has a vision that matches the view of the kingdom with regards to the role of America in the world, with regards to getting rid of terrorism, with regards to confronting Iran, with regards to rebuilding relations with traditional allies, with regards to trade and investment,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir, a former ambassador to the United States.

There was a perception that America had largely disengaged from the Middle East in particular, and that disengagement coincided with this humanitarian and political catastrophe in the region.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster

Trump’s trip comes amid numerous scandals at home, recalling the visit of the first American president to travel to Saudi Arabia, Richard Nixon, who went in June 1974 as the Watergate crisis deepened; two months later, he resigned.

Trump may not be popular with the general population of the Persian Gulf countries, but he’s extremely well-liked by their leaders, who 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.

He’s also unlikely to push them to change the way they run their countries, particularly when it comes to the treatment of its citizens, especially women, and political reforms.

“Those Gulf leaders who . . . have just been holding their breath, waiting for Trump to come into office, they’re very happy so far,” said Tamara Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who’s a now senior fellow and former director of the Center for Middle East Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “They feel like they’ve been understood. They feel like the administration is looking to be responsive to their concerns, and they feel like they’re already ahead of the game.”

Trump will spend two days – the longest of any of his five stops – in Saudi Arabia before heading to Israel and then Europe, places where he will be met with more skepticism. While in the kingdom, he’ll meet with the king, deliver a speech to leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries – some of whose citizens he tried to temporarily ban from the United States – and hold a Twitter forum. Saudi Arabia has an extremely high penetration rate for the social media platform.

He’ll be joined by a large group, including first lady Melania Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, and his two top aides, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.  

The Saudis, flattered to be the first stop on the new American president’s trip, signaling their nation’s role as leader in the Gulf region, eagerly await Trump’s offers of assistance in their fight against Iran and their actions in the civil wars in nearby Yemen and Syria. A major weapons deal is expected to be announced.

The Saudi reaction toward the end of the Obama administration was they were dealing with a U.S. ally that they felt focused far more on trying to change Saudi Arabia internally than on providing credible guarantees of its security. So re-establishing confidence is going to be a security goal.

Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic & International Studies

But days before Trump departed came word that despite his criticism of the Iran nuclear deal he planned to keep, at least temporarily, the landmark Obama-era agreement, which allows Tehran to pursue a nuclear energy and research program but prevents it from producing a nuclear weapon.

“The big challenge, I think, for Trump going forward is, OK, now the actual real work has to start at some point and you have to start delivering on things,” said Ilan Goldenberg, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “And there it’s not clear he’s going to be all that different than President Obama on their key issues, at least not in the foreign policy realm thus far that we’ve seen.”

Administration officials say Saudis officials reached out to Trump aides immediately after Trump’s stunning win over Democrat Hillary Clinton as they looked to “start a new relationship with America.” Preparations for the visit began around Inauguration Day, according to Saudi officials, and Trump had an initial meeting with the deputy crown prince at the White House in March.

Senior administration officials say Trump chose to start his first foreign trip in Saudi Arabia – instead of a more traditional first stop in Canada or Mexico – because of misconceptions about how the president feels about the region, undoubtedly in part due to his anti-Islam talk on the campaign trail.

“We thought that was very important because obviously people have tried to portray the president in a certain way,” said a senior administration official with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice. “But I think that what he wants to do is solve the same problem that a lot of the leaders in the Islamic world want to.”

Administration officials say Trump’s goals are to come up with a long-term fix for radicalization, a way to stop funding for terror and terror-related organizations, and more avenues for Gulf nations to counter the Islamic State terrorist group and Iran.

Related stories from McClatchy DC