Trump Arrives In Saudi Arabia To A Warm Welcome, Despite Troubles At Home

May 20, 2017
Originally published on May 23, 2017 8:36 am

President Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday carrying baggage — namely, a swirl of controversy stemming from his firing of FBI Director James Comey and the ongoing Russia investigations. But his hosts in Riyadh aren't likely to be bothered by it all.

Trumpeters played and jets flew overhead with red white and blue smoke trails decorating the sky as Trump emerged from Air Force One in Riyadh. He was greeted by Saudi Arabia's King Salman and children bearing flowers. A long red carpet led from Air Force One to the airport terminal.

Middle East expert Ilan Goldenberg is just back from a trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which included meetings with high-level government officials.

"I think they were very optimistic about President Trump," says Goldenberg, who runs the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

That might be surprising considering some of the ways Trump disparaged Saudi Arabia as a presidential candidate.

A check of his Twitter feed shows multiple tweets accusing Saudi Arabia of "freeloading," including this one from June of 2015.

That was a familiar refrain on the campaign trail. At a rally in Green Bay, Wis., in August, Trump said, "We have military bases that we rent — we pay rent to Saudi Arabia to protect them. No, no — think of it. ... Think of the stupidity."

And in a general election debate last year, Trump blasted Hillary Clinton because the Clinton Foundation had taken money from Saudi Arabia. But his remarks were as much a criticism of the country's human rights record as of her.

"I'd like to ask you right now why don't you give back the money that you've taken from certain countries that treat certain groups of people so horribly?" he said.

There's also the matter of the executive orders President Trump signed aimed at halting travel — at least temporarily — from several majority-Muslim countries in the name of security. Critics see them as "Muslim bans."

But none of that, experts said, was likely to dampen the enthusiasm for Trump in the Persian Gulf region.

Why? Part of it has to do with the contrast between the new U.S. president and his predecessor, President Obama.

"For the Saudis, anyone is better than Barack Obama," Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution said. "That was a really low point from their perspective."

Obama never really developed a rapport with Arab leaders, Hamid said. And they were particularly put off by Obama's willingness to negotiate with Iran, Saudi Arabia's main rival in the region.

"Even if they have some concerns about Trump and his unpredictability, they still see him (Trump) as an improvement. And they're enthusiastic in part because of Trump's strong rhetoric against Iran."

There are other reasons leaders in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have an affinity for Trump.

"Trump has a strongman persona. And that endears him to autocratic leaders in the Middle East," Hamid said. "They never liked that Obama would bring up human rights concerns in their meetings. They don't have to worry about that as much with President Trump, who is not prioritizing human rights or democracy."

Jerry Feierstein, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, agreed that Trump's persona has helped endear him to these leaders. Trump's tendency to run the government like a family business, with a close circle of advisers like his daughter and son-in-law, isn't seen as a negative in a part of the world run by extended families and monarchies, he said.

"For them, Donald Trump is a very understandable and relatable individual," Feierstein said. "He's a sympathetic character. He behaves the same way they behave."

This isn't to say Trump is universally popular among the citizens of the Gulf countries. However, he is unlikely to face protests while in Saudi Arabia — because that sort of public show of dissent isn't allowed.

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President Trump is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This is the first stop on his first trip overseas as president, but that doesn't mean that he's managed to escape the political troubles that certainly have been bedeviling him back home. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is in Riyadh. Tam, thanks for being with us.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Glad to be with you.

SIMON: And does the team surrounding the president deal with all the headlines that have - I must say that we discover a new one every hour it seems.

KEITH: (Laughter) Yes. You know, just as Air Force One was taking off - hadn't been in the air more than a few minutes - both The New York Times and Washington Post came out with big stories related to the FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible collusion between members of Trump's team and Russia. The White House put out statements batting one of the stories down, trying to put the other one in a more favorable context, trying to explain why the president would have told the Russian foreign minister that the FBI director was a nut job and that getting rid of him would relieve pressure. Since then, there hasn't really been a chance to ask the president any questions, and his communications team have made themselves pretty scarce. Though, Chief of Staff Ryan Priebus on the flight over told reporters that the president got very little sleep.

SIMON: Quite, if I may, a royal welcome in Saudi Arabia - right? - flags, horses.

KEITH: In - yes, all of those things. There were royal guards lining a red carpet that extended from Air Force One all the way to the terminal, children with flowers, trumpets, jets flying over with red-white-and-blue smoke trails decorating the sky. And then that was actually only the first arrival ceremony. There was a second arrival ceremony at the royal court, where a band played "The Star-Spangled Banner." There were bagpipes. The president was awarded a medal, one of the top honors in the country for for people who are not from Saudi Arabia. Now, President Obama...

SIMON: I've seen that on the television images. It looks like the kind of thing a sommelier wears in a classy restaurant.

KEITH: (Laughter) I don't think I go to those kind of restaurants, Scott.

SIMON: (Laughter).

KEITH: So I don't know what to tell you.

SIMON: I've seen them in movies, but go ahead, yes.

KEITH: (Laughter) But - all of this is to say that there is an affinity between Saudi Arabia and President Trump. There's a lot of optimism from Saudi Arabia's leaders about what a Trump presidency could mean for them. In part, it's stylistic. You know, they all love gold. But also, you know, President Trump has taken a really tough stance on Iran, and that is important to the leaders of Saudi Arabia.

SIMON: Of course, the president's scheduled to give a speech on Islam tomorrow. Do you have any indication about how that - what he's going to put into that talk?

KEITH: Well, I'm pretty sure that he is not going to say that he thinks Islam hates us, which is what he said a little more than a year ago in an interview on CNN. He'll be speaking to 35 - leaders from 35 Muslim-majority countries. His national security adviser says that he will call on them to promote a peaceful vision of a - of Islam. It's about getting these countries to unite against terror groups like ISIS. Just one interesting note - this speech is being written - a bunch of different drafts by a bunch of different people. Two people of note - Steven Miller, who is a young aide who had a big role in the president's travel ban executive order that was targeting Muslim-majority countries, and then Dina Powell, who's a deputy national security adviser and an Egyptian-American.

SIMON: Yeah. And she came to the administration from Goldman Sachs, right?

KEITH: Yes, she did.

SIMON: NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who is in Riyadh traveling with President Trump, thanks so much for being with us.

KEITH: You're welcome. Glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.