RIYADH, Saudi Arabia —President Donald Trump has found a place where elites believe that he has made America great again, where it is smart to move beyond heated campaign rhetoric in the interest of getting things done and where Trump’s brash style contrasts with President Barack Obama’s style and foreign policy. That place is Saudi Arabia.
Trump chose Riyadh to be the first destination in his debut eight-day, five-stop foreign trip. The candidate who talked about banning Muslims from entering the United States is now the first president to start his international travel in Saudi Arabia because, he said, it is custodian to Islam’s two holiest sites.
The kingdom responded by heaping honors on Trump. When Air Force One touched down at King Khalid International Airport, King Salman greeted the president and first lady Melania Trump at the head of a long red carpet.
Cannons boomed in the distance, seven Saudi jets zoomed overhead and a military brass band played. On the highway leading from the airport, the Trumps likely saw billboards with photos of Trump and King Salman and the message “Together we prevail.”
Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy believes Trump’s favor sends the message that the Saudis are the leaders of the Islamic world.
In similar fashion, Trump can point to the Saudis as proof that he commands respect where critics expected him to find little. Democrats may accuse him of being anti-Muslim, but he wins plaudits in the home of Mecca.
Trump and the Saudis are solid allies, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted at a press briefing, because of “our shared security interest.” Both nations want to curb Iran’s aggressive behavior and impress upon Houthi rebels in Yemen that they “will never prevail.”
As a candidate, Trump faulted the Saudis for not spending enough on Middle Eastern security.
That is about to change.
“The Saudis are spending a fortune now,” foreign policy analyst Michael Ledeen said. “They’re spending a fortune in Yemen,” battling Houthi rebels backed by Iran. And they’re about to spend billions to buy arms from the United States.
Trump’s first day in Riyadh featured a signing ceremony of a joint vision statement and an agreement to sell $110 billion in arms to the Saudis immediately and $350 billion over 10 years. Side agreements pledge Saudi investment of $22 billion in U.S. oil and gas projects. The administration argued that the arms package alone should support tens of thousands of jobs.
Before Trump left for Riyadh, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council warned that such deals would signal that the Trump administration has “completely outsourced” its foreign policy to the Saudis.
Tillerson sees the two countries’ interests as closely aligned. He argued that the arms deal “lowers the demand of our own military, but it also lowers the cost” to taxpayers.
Russia reports keep coming
The trip comes as news reports on Trump’s dealings with Russia have bombarded the White House.
Former FBI chief James Comey agreed to testify publicly before the Senate on his dealings with Trump before the president fired him, The New York Times reported that Russia said Trump dismissed Comey as a “nut job,” and The Washington Post reported that federal investigators deem a current White House staffer to be a person of interest.
The onslaught has left the White House press office little time to promote Trump’s foreign policy goals or garner more press coverage for a deal likely to appeal to Trump voters.
On Sunday, Trump is supposed to hold meetings with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Later, he plans to address 50 Muslim nationals at the Arab Islamic American Summit.
Trump has said that he will “challenge” Muslim leaders “to fight hatred and extremism and embrace a peaceful future for their faith.”
Aide Stephen Miller, who helped write Trump’s initial travel ban on Muslims, is working on the speech. Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that Trump worked to refine the speech during the Friday night flight from Washington.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.