By Philip Rucker,
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Trump arrived here Saturday for his debut on the world stage, hoping to turn a page on the scandal encircling his presidency back home as he embarks upon an ambitious, high-stakes journey through the Middle East and Europe.
As Air Force One touched down in Riyadh, Trump was set to be received as a royal visitor by a Saudi Arabian government eager to rekindle its relationship with the United States and shower the president with praise.
Trump has two days of meetings scheduled in Saudi Arabia with Arab and Muslim leaders. He hopes to forge new partnerships in fighting global terrorism and confronting a common enemy, Iran, as well as announce a major defense spending deal with the Saudis.
The city of Riyadh was awash in celebration for Trump’s visit, with hundreds of American and Saudi flags lining the major roads, along with billboards featuring his and King Salman’s official portraits. The exterior of the luxury hotel where the president will stay has been lit up with images of the two leaders.
The Saudis planned an elaborate welcome ceremony for Trump at the Riyadh airport, followed by coffee with King Salman and a ceremonial medal presentation and luncheon at the Saudi Royal Court. Trump also was slated to meet with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who visited Trump at the White House earlier this spring.
The highlight of Trump’s stop in Riyadh is expected to be a speech on Islam that he will deliver Sunday to the leaders of about 50 Muslim nations. 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 center here to fight radicalism and promote moderation, as well as take part in a Twitter forum with young people.
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 Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is accompanying Trump for most of the trip. “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, 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 largest 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.
Trump is traveling with first lady Melania Trump, who will make some cultural visits of her own, as well as daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, both senior advisers in the White House. He also is traveling with a large contingent of his West Wing staff, including chief of staff Reince Priebus, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn and press secretary Sean Spicer.
Kushner has played a leading role in helping choreograph what the White House is billing as an historic trip, along with national security adviser H.R. McMaster and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell.
Though Trump has done business abroad as a real estate developer, with hotels and golf courses in 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.”