By Philip Rucker and Karen DeYoung,
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Trump was received like visiting royalty here Saturday, as his debut on the world stage competed for attention at home with ongoing news of the scandal encircling his presidency.
In a series of official arrival ceremonies — at the airport and the Royal Court palace — Trump, his wife Melania, and an entourage including virtually his entire senior White House staff and much of his Cabinet, were serenaded by military bands, treated to a flyover of Saudi jets, feted in oppulent palaces and given the undivided attention of King Salman, the ruler of this ultra-conservative Muslim nation.
The welcome reflected a kingdom eager to rekindle its relationship with the United States, and to use the visit to declare and solidify its own leadership role in the Muslim world.
As this desert capital baked in triple-digit heat under a pall of dust, American and Saudi flags flew from lightpoles. The facade of the Ritz Carlton, the palace-like hotel where Trump is staying, was illuminated with massive photographs of the two leaders and the red, white, blue and green of the two nations’ flags.
The only U.S. president to make Saudi Arabia his first foreign visit, Trump was presented with the highest honor for a foreign dignitary, the collar of Abdulaziz al-Saud, named for the for the kingdom’s founder, which Salman hung on a thick gold chain around Trump’s neck.
In an ornate receptional hall at the Royal Court, members of the U.S. delegation lined up to shake hands with Salman, then took a seat along the periphery of the grand room aside a member of the Saudi delegation.
On the dais with Trump were the First Lady, Ivanka Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Others included Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Lunch with the King then followed, and a closed-door bilateral meeting. Later in the day, Trump and Tillerson will attend a signing ceremony for $110 billion in U.S. defense sales to Saudi Arabia, in many cases reconfirming deals that pre-date Trump’s election. The two governments also plan to sign additional commitments on counter-terrorism cooperation.
Among the issues discussed will be oil — the kingdom is the world’s largest producer — as well as Iran and Syria. Saudi Arabia is part of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, but relations were strained with the Obama administration over U.S. failure to push for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with strong support for rebels fighting against him.
During his campaign, Trump indicated he was uninterested in U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war, but as President has spoken out against Assad and last month launched a cruise missile attack against a Syrian government air base.
As they chatted following the award ceremony, Salman was overheard telling Trump that “Syria too used to be one of the most advanced countries. We used to get our professors from Syria. They served our kingdom. Unfortunately, they too brought destruction to their own country. You could destroy a country in mere seconds, but it takes a lot of effort.”
Air Force One touched down here shortly before 10 a.m. local time after an all-night flight. Salman, 81, who ascended to the Saudi throne in early 2015, was brought to the edge of the red carpet in a golf cart, then walked with a cane to the bottom of the aircraft stairs to await Trump.
The two exchanged greetings as a military brass band played, distant cannons boomed and seven Saudi jets flew overhead in formation, trailing red, white and blue smoke.
“I’m very happy to see you,” Salman told Trump, who responded that it was a “great honor” to be visiting the kingdom.
Trump and the first lady — who had her hair uncovered and wore black long sleeves and flared pants, cinched with a wide, metallic gold belt — were presented bouquets of flowers by three traditionally dressed little girls.
Salman’s presence at the airport ceremony was a sign of the importance of Trump’s visit to the Saudis. Chatting through an interpreter, the two men then walked into the VIP reception terminal at King Khalid International Airport for a cup of coffee. Salman rode with Trump in the president’s armored Cadillac for the drive into the city.
Trump has two days of meetings scheduled in Riyadh, including with the heads of the six Persian Gulf monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and an Arab Islamic American Summit of at least 40 nations, primarily from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He hopes to forge new partnerships in fighting global terrorism and confronting a common enemy, Iran, which on Friday re-elected President Hassan Rouhnani.
Before a royal banquet Saturday night, Trump will also hold a brief meeting with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the heir to the Saudi throne, and an open ended meeting with the Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who visited Trump at the White House earlier this spring.
The young deputy crown prince, at 31, is the architect of a massive plan for Saudi economic and cultural renovation and also serves as defense minister. Saudi-watchers also consider him in competition with Nayef for power.
MSB, as the deputy crown prince is known, has been in close contact with Kushner and the two were the prime movers behind Trump’s trip here.
The highlight of Trump’s stop in Riyadh is expected to be a speech on Islam that he will deliver Sunday to the larger summit meeting. Though his campaign was marked by harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric, Trump is planning to preach religious tolerance here, inviting the Arab world to join the United States in combating terrorism and evil in the region.
Trump also planned to participate in the inauguration of a new Saudi center to fight radicalism and promote moderation, as well as take part in a Twitter forum with young people.
Both countries are eager to spark more trade and investment between them.Total U.S.-Saudi trade last year was around $38 billion, with a U.S. surplus of $2.7 billion, according to the Saudi Commerce Ministry. A group of chief executives from leading U.S. companies hoping to do more business here has traveled separately to Riyadh this weekend for a CEO summit.
Trump’s advisers hope his foreign trip will offer a reset after two weeks of bruising headlines in Washington stemming from his abrupt firing of James B. Comey as FBI director and the escalating investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“I think there is a great anticipation of the president’s trip as to what could be accomplished,” said Tillerson. “The purpose of this trip is really one of conveying a message that America is back in terms of our role as a convener, our role as a facilitator to address the daunting challenges that exist in that part of the world, most particularly the challenge of global terrorism.”
Trump’s nine-day trip will be daunting. From here, he will travel to Jerusalem for meetings with Israeli officials, as well as a visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, and then to Rome, where he will have a private audience with Pope Francis. He sees these stops as a way to unite three of the world’s religions, Islam, Judaism and Catholicism.
Trump then visits Brussels for a meeting with NATO leaders, including a bilateral session with newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron, and finally to Sicily, Italy, where he will attend a G7 summit of the United States’ closest economic allies.
A foreign affairs novice, Trump will have to navigate many diplomatic land mines in his meetings, dealing with issues ranging from terrorism to trade to hot spots like North Korea and Syria.
Trump has tried to make time over the past two weeks to prepare for his trip, which aides hope could become a resounding triumph but risks going horribly awry with just one mistake. He has welcomed some visitors, such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the Republican Party’s leading elder statesman, to deliver tutorials on world affairs, and also has attended regular briefings by his national security team, including Tillerson.
Melania Trump will make some cultural visits of her own. Ivanka Trump plans to hold a roundtable session on “women’s economic empowerment.” The role of women in Saudi society, where they are denied basic rights, is a source of controversy for the monarchy.
Other officials accompanying Trump include national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn and press secretary Sean Spicer.
Though Trump has done business abroad as a real estate developer, with hotels and golf courses on several continents, this is his first time traveling as a head of state.
“For Americans, it will be a chance to see him in a different setting,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Quite honestly, people will be looking to see how he does. There will just be flat-out curiosity about how well he does handling that dimension of the job.”