When President Trump lands in Riyadh on Saturday, Saudi Arabia will get a chance to see if its hard work courting him has paid off.
The kingdom broke with most other Muslim-majority countries to back Trump’s controversial travel executive order and has promised billions of dollars in investment in the United States, among other moves designed to please the president.
As Trump’s visit approached, the Saudis have literally been counting down the seconds on a slick website for the summit that declares: “Together we prevail.”
“They’re really going all out on this pageantry,” said Cole Bockenfeld, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy “Part of that just plays to Trump and his personality.”
U.S.-Saudi relations soured throughout the course of the Obama administration.
The Saudis opposed the Iran nuclear deal because it did not address its archrival’s other activities, such as Iran’s support for group likes Hezbollah.
The Obama administration was also increasingly critical of the Saudis’ conduct in the Yemen civil war and curtailed some military support for the campaign in the final month of his presidency.
And though President Obama tried to stop Congress from passing a law fiercely opposed by the Saudis that allows 9/11 victims and their families to sue the kingdom, Congress overruled his veto.
In Trump, the Saudi’s saw a chance for a new beginning and jumped at it almost immediately.
King Salman was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump after the election and said he hopes Trump brings “peace and stability” to the region.
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Trump in March. A statement afterward from Prince Mohammad’s advisor hailed the meeting as “a historical turning point” and called Trump a “true friend of Muslims.”
The statement also supported Trump’s travel order, saying it did not target “Muslim countries or Islam.”
Now that Trump will be on their turf, the Saudis are pulling out all the stops. They’ve planned everything from a concert by American country singer Toby Keith to a multinational conference where Trump will deliver a major speech on Islam and another on one of his favorite topics, social media.
The kingdom is also expected to announce a $40 billion investment in U.S. infrastructure during the trip.
Trump has made disparaging comments about Muslims and more specifically about Saudi Arabia, saying the United States is “losing a tremendous amount of money” to defending the kingdom.
But the Saudis are hopeful for Trump for two reasons, said Steven Sache, executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute.
First, he’s not Obama.
“For the Saudis this is an enormous opportunity to rewrite the script,” he said. “Trump is very different than Barack ObamaBarack ObamaSaudi Arabia courts Trump Health groups push FDA not to repeal e-cig rules Will McConnell and Ryan put party over country in defense of Trump? MORE.”
Second, Sache said, Trump’s views align with the Saudis in many areas. Both take a hardline stance on Iran, and Trump is open to selling to the Saudis weapons so they can defend themselves without U.S. troops.
Indeed, Trump is expected to announce an arms package worth upwards of $100 billion during the trip, a sign Saudi efforts to court him are not in vain. Over 10 years, total sales could reach $350 billion.
The package is expected to include big-ticket items including Littoral Combat Ships, THAAD missile defense systems, armored personnel carriers, missiles, bombs and munitions.
Sache called the arms deal “pretty good evidence” the Saudis’ overtures are working. It also gives the trip a concrete outcome to Trump’s benefit.
“All presidents want deliverables,” he said. “It’s important not just to have good vibrations.”
Ali Shihabi, executive director of Washington-based Saudi think tank the Arabia Foundation, described the Saudis’ plans for the visit as reciprocation for Trump choosing to make the country his first stop on his first overseas trip.
That decision, he said, was a “great development” that “confirms the depths” of the two countries’ relationship.
“A visit by an America president is always a big deal, but the fact that he made the gesture to come to Saudi Arabia first is a very big deal,” he said. “A new page has turned on the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”
Bockenfeld, of the Project on Middle East Democracy, downplayed the importance of the arms sale, highlighting that Obama sold the Saudis $115 billion over eight years.
“A lot of the sales that Trump is planning to announce this weekend were beginning to be negotiated under Obama and now are being packaged together to have this big announcement,” he said.
Still, he said, both sides are working hard to make sure the other is impressed during the trip, which could have its downsides.
“Trump and the Saudis are both really scrambling to come up with big announcements,” he said. “Expectations, especially on the Saudi side, are really high in terms of there being a real shift in policy. There’s real potential the expectations won’t be met. That mismatch could have some real consequences and make the trip not go as well as planned.”