Pres­i­dent vis­it­ing Saudi Ara­bia in first for­eign trip

Saudi of­fi­cial calls stop “cru­cial turn­ing point” in re­la­tion­ship.

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Wash­ing­ton Bu­reau’s W.J. Hen­ni­gan and spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent JoshMit­nick in Tel Aviv con­trib­uted. By Michael A. Me­moli and Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske michael.me­moli@la­times.com

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.”

JONATHAN ERNST/AP

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.”

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