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Saudi Arabia will give Trump a royal welcome, ignore his slights

BEIRUT — When President 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, public 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 is “losing a tremendous amount of money” defending the kingdom.


But Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies were so angry over former president Barack Obama’s policies toward the Middle East 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 US 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.


There are three summit meetings 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 that will be in Riyadh.

“Historic Summit. Brighter Future,” declares an official website for Trump’s visit, counting down the seconds until it all starts.

The exuberant reception for Trump reflects how differently Persian Gulf leaders see him, compared with how they saw Obama.

Many of Obama’s Middle East policies angered the Saudis, including what they saw as his giving up on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a longtime US ally, during the Arab Spring protests; his hesitation to intervene directly in the Syria conflict; and his pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran.


The distaste for Obama grew so strong that when he visited the kingdom last year, only a small delegation met him at the airport and state television did not broadcast his arrival.

“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, 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 — who have seized the capital, Sanaa. And they see a role for US 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.

The Saudis have spent a fortune on US weapons over the years, and a series of new deals that could be worth more than $300 billion over the next decade are close to completion, Reuters reported this month.

Trump also hopes Arab states like Saudi Arabia 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.