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Saudi Arabia to give Trump a royal welcome, despite his insults

  • Author: Ben Hubbard, The New York Times
  • Updated: May 19, 2017
  • Published May 19, 2017

FILE– President Donald Trump arrives for lunch with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is King Salman’s son and the defense minister, in the White House in Washington, March 14, 2017. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

BEIRUT — When President Donald Trump heads to Saudi Arabia on Friday for his first trip overseas since taking office, it will be for much more than a run-of-the-mill state visit.

The Saudis have internationalized the event, organizing a sprawling "Arab Islamic American Summit" with leaders from dozens of Muslim countries, as well as talks with the king, the inauguration of a counterterrorism center, forums for business executives and young people and a country music concert.

Saudi Arabia, home to some of Islam's holiest sites, will be pulling out all the stops for a man who has declared "Islam hates us" and said the United States was "losing a tremendous amount of money" defending the kingdom.

But Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies were so angry over President Barack Obama's Middle East policies that they appeared prepared to dismiss Trump's remarks as campaign rhetoric, and to see in him a possibility of resetting relations.

The grandiose reception seeks to convince Trump that his priorities are theirs, too, and that they are indispensable partners in fighting terrorism, in confronting Iran, in bolstering U.S. businesses and perhaps even in pursuing peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

"This administration has 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," Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, told reporters Thursday.

The number of events scheduled throughout the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Saturday and Sunday is staggering, as the Saudis seek to project their country as a dynamic place, a leader in the Arab and Islamic worlds and a close ally of the United States.

The Stars and Stripes are flying in Riyadh's streets, intermixed with Saudi flags.

Three summit meetings are planned: between Trump and King Salman, the Saudi monarch; between Trump and the leaders of a Gulf coalition, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates; and between Trump and more than 50 leaders and representatives from across the Muslim world.

Expected to attend are 37 heads of state and at least six prime ministers, said Osama Nugali, a spokesman for the Saudi Foreign Ministry.

Among the invitees is President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes including genocide, although it remains unclear whether he will attend or, if he does, whether he will meet Trump.

"He is invited definitely because it is an Arab and Muslim country," Nugali said.

Also reported by local news organizations to be attending are President Fuad Masum of Iraq, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan.

Not on the guest list are Iran, the Saudis' regional nemesis, and Syria, whose president, Bashar Assad, is at war with rebels who have received support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries whose representatives will be in Riyadh.

Trump and King Salman will also inaugurate the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, where Trump is to give a speech about Islam. The U.S. president, a prolific — and often contentious — user of Twitter, will also deliver the keynote address at a conference about social media, under the auspices of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king's powerful son.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and ahead of the G20 summit, in Beijing, August 31, 2016. (Rolex Dela Pena / Reuters pool)

Elsewhere in the city, there is to be an international counterterrorism conference, a forum for chief executives, an art exhibition inside the Royal Court and a concert featuring American country musician Toby Keith. (In a kingdom where alcohol is banned, he is unlikely to entertain the all-male crowd with his song, "Beer for My Horses.")

"Historic Summit. Brighter Future," an official website for Trump's visit declares.

The exuberant reception reflects the sharp contrast with how Persian Gulf leaders perceived Obama and his policies. He angered the Saudis for what they saw as his abandonment of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally, during the Arab Spring protests; his hesitation to intervene directly in the Syria conflict; and his pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran.

"Any new president has to be better than President Obama, because no one was worse for us than Obama," said Salman al-Dossary, a writer for the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

In Trump, however, many Saudis see a decisive, business-focused leader, who they say shares their goals in the region.

They applauded his military strike on a Syrian air base after Assad's forces used chemical weapons, and they have noted his tough talk on Iran. They hope he will increase support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen against rebels aligned with Iran. And they see a role for U.S. investment in efforts to shift the Saudi economy from its dependence on oil.

"This administration is very clear, not just with Saudi Arabia but also with Turkey and other traditional allies, that the idea is to double down on existing relationships and to put allies first," said Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Saudi political analyst and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a policy research organization.

Saudi Arabia has also pitched itself as a Muslim ally against Islamic State militants, and Trump's desire to moderate his stance on Islam was among the reasons he chose Riyadh as his first stop overseas as president, according to administration officials.

Trump also hopes Arab states can play a role in brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians — an idea some Persian Gulf leaders have privately entertained, if Israel were to offer certain concessions.

Some aspects of Trump's tenure that have caused criticism in the United States do not seem to bother the Saudis.

His reliance on his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner — both of whom will join him in Riyadh — for policy advice is business as usual in a monarchy where princes run the government and the king has appointed one son as defense minister and another as ambassador to Washington.

And worries that Trump could use his presidency to benefit Trump hotels and golf courses get little traction in a country that is named after its royal family, and where the line between public and private wealth is vague.

Trump's apparent lack of interest in human rights also suggests that he is unlikely to complain about the justice system or the limited rights of Saudi women.

Because of their decades-old alliance, Saudi Arabia relies heavily on the United States for security and other issues. To maintain that alliance, Saudi leaders have studiously ignored Trump's negative statements about Islam while emphasizing what their kingdom provides, including intelligence cooperation and billions of dollars in arms purchases.

Trump has not always returned the love.

Last month, he told Reuters that protecting Saudi Arabia cost too much.

"Frankly, Saudi Arabia has not treated us fairly, because we are losing a tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia," he said.

While such comments made some Saudis uncomfortable, they took heart from his ordering the strike in Syria — a step Obama had declined to take — and they hope his tough talk on Iran will lead to action.

It remains unclear whether the visit will result in concrete initiatives or will remain symbolic. But some caution that what Trump will ultimately give Persian Gulf states may fall short of the expectations.

"You have a Trump administration that has a banner of 'America first' and is preparing a counterterrorism strategy that seeks to place the burden more so on the shoulders of our partners," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington research organization, who has recently met with senior Persian Gulf officials. "Therein lies a potential for a mismatch of expectations."

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