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First stop on Trump tour signals Saudi Arabia’s importance

Visiting Riyadh first is designed to solidify its premier partnership in the Arab and Muslim world

Image Credit: AFP
A giant billboard bearing portraits of Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on a main road in Riyadh.
Gulf News

Washington: President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia — the first stop on his first overseas trip, beginning Friday — is designed to solidify what the administration envisions as its premier partnership in the Arab and Muslim world, effectively anointing Saudi Arabia as Islam’s political as well as religious leader.

During two full days in Riyadh, Trump plans to sign bilateral military, economic and counterterrorism agreements with the Saudis, signalling an end to what both Riyadh and Washington have called the estrangement of the Obama years. Nearly every senior White House adviser will be aboard Air Force One on Friday afternoon for the more than 12-hour flight to Riyadh.

Over two days at the top of a gruelling schedule, the president will hold bilateral meetings and a summit with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. At a lunch with leaders of more than 50 majority-Muslim countries from around the world — chosen and invited by Saudi Arabia — Trump will deliver what White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster called “an inspiring, yet direct speech” on his vision for confronting radical ideology, spreading peace and sharing the burdens of achieving both.

Overnight stops in Occupied Jerusalem and the Vatican will follow and the nine-day trip ends with visits to the headquarters of Nato and the European Union, both in Brussels, and attendance at a summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations in Sicily. Trump returns home on May 27.

But the main focus from the beginning has been on the Saudi stop. Planning began last fall shortly after Trump’s election, according to the senior official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the agenda, when the kingdom made contact with Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner to say, “We really want to work with this administration.”

“They came back to us with several proposals, we shared them with the president,” and Trump approved, the official said.

Since then, although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis have long experience with the kingdom, Kushner has been the point man on Saudi Arabia and has held discussions with 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Prince Mohammad is the architect and prime force behind a plan to move the kingdom’s culture and economy into the 21st century; he visited Trump in the Oval Office in March.

Derek Chollet, who handled the Saudi account for the Pentagon as assistant defence secretary for international security affairs in President Barack Obama’s second term, suggested that Kushner and Mohammad are naturally drawn to each other. Both are scions of wealthy families — in Kushner’s case both his own and Trump’s — and both have enormous power inversely proportionate to their young ages and levels of experience.

Among bilateral agreements expected to be inked on the trip is a major US-Saudi arms deal, providing for Riyadh’s purchase of new ships for its eastern navy, a possible Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic-missile system, helicopters, and battle tanks. The Gulf states are expected to state their intention to develop a mutual defence agreement described as an Arab Nato, building on a broader, Saudi-led military alliance of Muslim countries announced two years ago that has never gotten off the ground.

Trump also expects to receive a major new financial contribution from the Gulf states to what the United States considers its costly defence of these countries and the fight against Daesh. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia — which has recently signed deals with Russia to reduce oil production in a slow market — are expecting new trade and investment agreements with each other.

Trump’s visit is a “historic trip by every measure,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir said during a visit to Washington last week. “But then keep in mind that Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam. It’s the custodian of the two holy mosques.”

“We are your closest partner in the war against terrorism and extremism. ... We are the country that offered the Arab peace initiative” to resolve the Palestinian conflict, Al Jubeir said. “Saudi Arabia is a huge investor in the US economy and a huge trading partner of the United States, and we’re the largest exporter of oil in the world.”

“To achieve the objectives that the president set out — whether in restoring America’s role, whether in defeating Daesh, containing Iran, promoting peace, investment, trade and prosperity, Saudi Arabia is key.”

The kingdom’s position at the top of Trump’s travel list, Al Jubeir said, “is not surprising.”