President visiting Saudi Arabia in first foreign trip
Saudi official calls stop “crucial turning point” in relationship.
RIYADH, SaudiArabia— President Donald Trump takes off Friday for Saudi Arabia, his first stop on his first overseas trip as president, where he can expect an elaborate welcome by the Saudi royal family that speaks to their hopes hewill crack down on a joint enemy— Iran.
The Obama administration negotiated a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for easing international economic sanctions. But to the Sunni Muslim leaders in Riyadh, that suggested an unacceptable concession to their regional Shiite Muslim rivals inTehran, and relations withWashington soured.
Although the Trump administration waived those sanctions again this week, as required by Congress to keep the nuclear accord intact, it added a new raft of penalties aimed at Tehran’s ballistic missile program, which is not covered under the deal.
Moreover, the president’s oft-stated opposition to the 2015 Iran deal — and his sweeping aside Obama administration concerns about Saudi airstrikes on civilian targets in Yemen — has the Saudis willing to overlook Trump’s strident language about Muslims during the presidential campaign.
“This visit will be considered by history as a crucial turning point in opening relations between the Arab world and the West,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir told reporters Thursday at the palatial Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh.
Trump hopes to leave the swirl of political scandals behind inWashington with the pomp of a two-day visit to a longtime ally that fulfills his vision of reasserting American power around the globe after what he considers a retreat by the Obama administration.
While recent presidents have made their debut foreign trip to Canada orMexico, Trump wants to return the U.S. strategic focus to the Middle East, and to restore the previous American tilt toward Sunni power in the region after President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia and his outreach to Iran.
Trump is expected to emphasize a shared commitment to fighting Islamic State, al-Qaida and other terrorist networks and to back it up with a major new package of weapons sales for the Saudis. The cost could reach $100 billion.
“This is a huge deal for the Saudis because I think they largely felt that what the previous administration had done is unleashed Iran on the region,” said James Carafano, a Heritage Foundation analyst who advised Trump’s campaign and transition team.
The Pentagon has already resumed sharing certain intelligence, including satellite imagery, with the Saudi military fighting IranianHouthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war, Saudi officials said.
The Obama administration had cut back cooperation with the Saudiled military coalition after human rights groups said Saudi warplanes had bombed medical facilities and had used cluster munitions against civilian targets in Yemen.
The shift came as new domestic energy sources and technologies allowed the United States to ease its century-old reliance on Saudi oil and gas.
But several of Trump’s top adviserswant to tiltU.S. policy in the Arab world back toward Sunni power, led by the Saudis, as a counter-weight to Shiite Iran. During a visit to Riyadh last month, Defense Secretary James Mattis acknowledged what he called the “past frustrations.”
“I think that what is important today is that we identify practical steps as we take this relationship forward,” Mattis said.
Trump, who heads to Israel after he leavesRiyadh on Monday, could claim a significant diplomatic victory if he can nudge the two countries to make mutual gestures toward ultimately normalizing relations.
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who now is a deputy minister for diplomacy, said mutual antipathy toward Iran could be the key. “Today Israel and the Sunni Arab states have a greater confluence of interests than at any time since Israel’s creation,” he said.
Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said there is growing bipartisan concern in the Senate about the Trump administration’s “unconditional level of support” for the Saudis and their military operations in Yemen.
“The Saudis are our friends,” he said. “But they are also funding a version of Islam that ends up becoming the building blocks for the extremist groups that we’re fighting.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis, seen visiting last month with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, spoke of “practical steps as we take this relationship forward.”