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Trump Saudi visit forecast to burnish his image with Muslims

Nicholas Kamm, AFP | US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speak to the media in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 14, 2017.

President Donald Trump may be embroiled in accusations of wrongdoing in the United States, but none of that is likely to colour his visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday, where he is expected to be greeted with warmth and praise.


The trip, Trump’s first international tour, includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Italy and Belgium. The President’s weekend in the desert kingdom will centre around three main events: a Saudi-US summit, a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-US summit and an Arab Islamic American Summit, which is to be attended by leaders of the world’s Islamic nations.

While in the kingdom, Trump is scheduled to give a speech on radical Islam and, in keeping with his own predilections, participate in a Twitter forum with young people.

Several of his hosts, the Saudis among them, are invested in making the trip a triumph. They see Trump as an ally because of his vociferous opposition to the Iranian government, which the Saudis see as a destabilising force in the region. Relations between the kingdom and the US had frayed toward the end of President Barack Obama’s tenure.

While President Obama had strayed from longstanding US alliances in the Middle East, Trump has “signaled a return to a traditional view, which is that there are good powers and bad powers in the region,” said Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

In that view, Saudi Arabia and Israel are in the good column. Iran is in the bad.

A foregone conclusion

The success of Trump’s trip has not been left to chance. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have already negotiated, or are in the final stages of negotiating, accords with the United States that are expected to be announced during Trump’s visit. Among them is a series of arms deals with the kingdom worth more than $100 billion. That number could rise as high as $300 billion over the next decade, a senior White House official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The arms deal highlights a welcome reversal of policy for the Saudis. Last year the Obama administration halted some weapon sales to the Kingdom because of its deadly military operation in Yemen. The Trump administration scrapped that decision in March.

Trump and Saudi officials are also expected to announce a package of Saudi investment in US infrastructure. And Trump is expected to lay out his vision for a Gulf State-backed NATO-style defense force for the Middle East.

“The Saudis are basically trying to present Trump with win-win situations,” Haykel said.

Trump will hold bilateral meetings with leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, some of whom he has already encountered. On Monday he hosted Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed at the White House. The two governments recently concluded a defense cooperation agreement, and the State Department last week approved a $2 billion sale of arms to the UAE.

Tackling radical Islam

The President’s speech on radical Islam will coincide with the opening of a centre in Riyadh dedicated to promoting moderate Islam. The address will be “inspiring but direct” and will highlight the need to confront radical ideology, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said.

The speech is intended, in part, to signal that the President has moved away from the inflammatory language he used about Muslims during his campaign and his repeated assertions that Saudi Arabia was behind the attacks on 9/11.

“The gesture in choosing Saudi Arabia as his first country [to visit as president] is a refreshing pivot from the campaign rhetoric,” said Fatima Baeshen, a director at the Arabia Foundation in Washington, D.C. “It’s symbolic to the global Muslim community, given that Saudi Arabia is home to two holy sites in Islam.”

A two-way street

The trip has benefits for the Saudis as well. The weekend will include a Saudi-US CEO forum on Saturday, and several investment deals are expected to be inked as part of the Vision 2030 social and economic reform initiative the Kingdom unveiled last year. Saudi Arabia will also issue new licenses allowing US companies to operate there.

The trip won’t all be talk of business and terror. Over the weekend, American country singer Toby Keith will give a concert in Riyadh. The event is free but open to men only.

Trump narrowly avoided a sticky moment at the summit of Arab leaders. Early in the week, Sudan’s foreign minister told reporters in Geneva that his nation’s president, Omar al-Bashir, would attend the forum of Arab leaders. The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for war crimes against Bashir, and the idea that an American president would attend an event with an accused war criminal outraged former US officials and human rights activists.

But Trump dodged that bullet.

On Friday his office announced that he would not attend the event. "President Omar al-Bashir has apologised to King Salman of Saudi Arabia for being unable to attend the Riyadh summit," a statement from his office carried by the official SUNA news agency said.

After his stop in Saudi Arabia, Trump is scheduled to travel to Israel where, in addition to officials from that nation, he is expected to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

Israeli intelligence officials are said to be “boiling mad” with Trump for leaking information supplied by them to Russian officials, Buzz Feed reported, but none of that ire is likely to be on display during his visit there. Like the Saudis, the Israeli government is likely to go out of its way to make Trump's trip a favourable one

“They’re just so pleased to see the back of Obama that they’re willing to forgive him anything,” Haykel said.

Israeli officials have already publicly stated that there was little daylight between them and the president. In a tweet, Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman called the security relationship between the two countries “deep, meaningful and unprecedented.”

Trump is hoping to push forward his efforts to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians so is not expected to use the trip to announce plans to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He has already shown that he is trying to walk a fine line between the two sides with his refusal to say outright that the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, lies in Israel and is not subject to Palestinian territorial claims. The wall, which is in Jerusalem, is also revered by Muslims, who know it as the Buraq Wall.

In Italy, Trump will have an audience with Pope Francis, completing the President’s diplomatic nod to the world’s three Abrahamic religions. “It’s symbolic from a broader context,” Baeshen said. “I think, overall, it’s a very positive move in the right direction.”

After his meeting with the Pope, Trump is scheduled to travel to Sicily for the G7 summit, and then go on to Brussels for the NATO summit, where he is expected to meet with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron.

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