Pres­i­dent Trump’s

visit to Saudi Ara­bia as the first stop on his tour is meant to so­lid­ify the United States’ premier Arab and Mus­lim part­ner­ship.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KAREN DEYOUNG Drew Har­well and Steven Muf­son con­tributed to this re­port.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s visit to Saudi Ara­bia — the first stop on his first over­seas trip, be­gin­ning Fri­day — is de­signed to so­lid­ify what the ad­min­is­tra­tion en­vi­sions as its premier part­ner­ship in the Arab and Mus­lim world, ef­fec­tively anoint­ing the king­dom as Is­lam’s po­lit­i­cal as well as re­li­gious leader.

Dur­ing two full days in Riyadh, Trump plans to sign bi­lat­eral mil­i­tary, eco­nomic and coun­terter­ror­ism agree­ments with the Saudis, sig­nal­ing an end to what both Riyadh and Wash­ing­ton have called the es­trange­ment of the Obama years.

Given the tur­moil in Wash­ing­ton, the jour­ney may of­fer a wel­come break for the be­sieged ad­min­is­tra­tion. Nearly ev­ery se­nior White House ad­viser will be aboard Air Force One on Fri­day af­ter­noon for the more than 12hour flight to Riyadh.

But af­ter tout­ing the tour as an op­por­tu­nity for what aides call Trump’s “dis­rup­tive” style to shake up the world in a pos­i­tive way, the on­go­ing news from home may end up be­ing a ma­jor dis­trac­tion to Trump and his hosts.

Over two days at the top of a gru­el­ing sched­ule, the pres­i­dent will hold bi­lat­eral meet­ings and a sum­mit with the six Per­sian Gulf states of the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil. At a lunch with lead­ers of more than 50 ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries from around the world — cho­sen and in­vited by Saudi Ara­bia — Trump will de­liver what White House na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster called “an in­spir­ing yet di­rect speech” on his vi­sion for con­fronting radical ide­ol­ogy, spread­ing peace and shar­ing the bur­dens of achiev­ing both.

Overnight stops in Jerusalem and the Vat­i­can will fol­low, com­plet­ing a tour of “the Mus­lim world, the Jewish world and the Catholic world, all in about four days,” a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said, with a “his­toric” mes­sage of re­li­gious tol­er­ance.

The nine-day trip ends with vis­its to the head­quar­ters of NATO and the Euro­pean Union, both in Brus­sels, and at­ten­dance at a sum­mit of the Group of Seven lead­ing in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions in Si­cily. Trump will re­turn home on May 27.

But the main fo­cus from the be­gin­ning has been on the Saudi stop. Plan­ning be­gan last fall shortly af­ter Trump’s elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to the se­nior of­fi­cial, one of sev­eral who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity about the agenda, when the king­dom made con­tact with Trump’s ad­viser and son-in-law Jared Kush­ner to say, “We re­ally want to work with this ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

“They came back to us with sev­eral pro­pos­als, we shared them with the pres­i­dent,” and Trump ap­proved, the of­fi­cial said.

Since then, although Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son and De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis have long ex­pe­ri­ence with the king­dom, Kush­ner has been the point man on Saudi Ara­bia and has held dis­cus­sions with 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man. MBS, as he is known, is the ar­chi­tect and prime force be­hind a plan to move the king­dom’s cul­ture and econ­omy into the 21st cen­tury; he vis­ited Trump in the Oval Of­fice in March.

Nu­mer­ous Saudi watch­ers have ex­pressed con­cern that Kush­ner’s affin­ity for MBS in­serts the United States into the king­dom’s fraught suc­ces­sion com­pe­ti­tion, in which MBS is sec­ond in line be­hind Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Nayef.

Others, in­clud­ing a num­ber of U.S. of­fi­cials who work on the Mid­dle East, are wor­ried that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­fu­sive pub­lic em­brace of the Saudis ef­fec­tively de­clares Sunni Mus­lims to be the lead­ers of the Is­lamic world, although many ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries have dif­fer­ences with the king­dom and about 15 per­cent of the world’s Mus­lims are Shi­ite.

Derek Chol­let, who han­dled the Saudi ac­count for the Pen­tagon as as­sis­tant de­fense sec­re­tary for in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs in Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s sec­ond term, sug­gested that Kush­ner and MBS are nat­u­rally drawn to each other. Both are scions of wealthy fam­i­lies — in Kush­ner’s case both his own and Trump’s — and both have enor­mous power in­versely pro­por­tion­ate to their young ages and lev­els of ex­pe­ri­ence.

Over­all, Chol­let said, “there’s a nat­u­ral affin­ity be­tween the Saudis and the Trumps. They op­er­ate sim­i­larly, with fam­ily mem­bers be­ing close ad­vis­ers, a mix of pub­lic and pri­vate in­ter­ests, and not a lot of talk about hu­man rights.”

Trump, he said, has “an affin­ity for palm-lined palaces. I’m not jok­ing. This feels more nat­u­ral to the Saudis than any other U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion. . . . The House of Trump and the House of Saud.”

Among bi­lat­eral agree­ments ex­pected to be inked on the trip is a ma­jor U.S.-Saudi arms deal, pro­vid­ing for the king­dom’s pur­chase of new ships for its eastern navy, a pos­si­ble Ter­mi­nal High Alti­tude Area De­fense (THAAD) mis­sile de­fense sys­tem, he­li­copters, and bat­tle tanks. Ne­go­ti­a­tions on vir­tu­ally all of the pur­chases were be­gun un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, in some cases years ago. Congress was no­ti­fied in 2015 of the agree­ment for at least four lit­toral com­bat ships, at a price of $11.5 bil­lion.

The gulf states are ex­pected to state their in­ten­tion to de­velop a mu­tual de­fense agree­ment de­scribed as an Arab NATO, build­ing on a broader, Saudi-led mil­i­tary al­liance of Mus­lim coun­tries an­nounced two years ago that has never got­ten off the ground.

Both Obama and his pre­de­ces­sor Ge­orge W. Bush pur­sued ef­forts to unite the gulf states in a mil­i­tary pact that would make their sys­tems in­ter­op­er­a­ble and see them carry more of their own de­fense costs. That idea has made lit­tle progress. Against this dif­fi­cult his­tory, Trump will try again.

Trump also ex­pects to re­ceive a ma­jor new fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tion from the gulf states to what the United States con­sid­ers its costly de­fense of these coun­tries and the fight against the Is­lamic State. With Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar al­ready host­ing U.S. mil­i­tary bases, sev­eral of the coun­tries think they are con­tribut­ing enough. Others, in­clud­ing Saudi Ara­bia, find them­selves cash-strapped as the re­sult of the down­turn in oil prices.

The Saudis wel­come Trump’s ap­par­ent lack of con­cern about their lim­its on free ex­pres­sion and other hu­man rights prob­lems, and are look­ing for help in quash­ing last year’s U.S. leg­is­la­tion that could hold them li­able for le­gal dam­ages re­lated to the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, in which 15 of the 19 per­pe­tra­tors were Saudi cit­i­zens.

Both the United States and Saudi Ara­bia — which has re­cently signed deals with Rus­sia to re­duce oil pro­duc­tion in a slow mar­ket — are ex­pect­ing new trade and in­vest­ment agree­ments with each other.

Saudi lead­ers have de­clared them­selves un­per­turbed by Trump’s com­ments be­fore and dur­ing the cam­paign.

“Tell Saudi Ara­bia and others that we want (de­mand!) free oil for the next ten years or we will not pro­tect their pri­vate Boe­ing 747s. Pay up!” Trump tweeted in Septem­ber 2014. As a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Trump de­scribed the king­dom as run by a despotic regime that would even­tu­ally be over­thrown.

On the other hand, ac­cord­ing to fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure forms filed by his cam­paign, the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion cre­ated eight com­pa­nies named af­ter Jid­dah, Saudi Ara­bia’s sum­mer cap­i­tal. The com­pa­nies, whose cre­ation sug­gested ho­tel deals but whose pur­pose was never spec­i­fied, were dis­solved af­ter the elec­tion.

Four of them, ac­cord­ing to his fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure fil­ing last May, were es­tab­lished on the same day in Au­gust that Trump told an Alabama rally crowd: “Saudi Ara­bia, I get along with all of them. They buy apart­ments from me. They spend $40 mil­lion, $50 mil­lion. Am I sup­posed to dis­like them? I like them very much.”

In the king­dom’s view, recog­ni­tion of its lead­ing role is long over­due.

Trump’s visit is a “his­toric trip by ev­ery mea­sure,” Saudi For­eign Min­is­ter Adel al-Jubeir said dur­ing a visit to Wash­ing­ton last week. “But then keep in mind that Saudi Ara­bia is the birth­place of Is­lam. It’s the cus­to­dian of the two holy mosques.”

“We are your clos­est part­ner in the war against ter­ror­ism and ex­trem­ism. . . . We are the coun­try that of­fered the Arab peace ini­tia­tive” to re­solve the Pales­tinian con­flict, Jubeir said. “Saudi Ara­bia is a huge in­vestor in the U.S. econ­omy and a huge trad­ing part­ner of the United States, and we’re the largest ex­porter of oil in the world.”

“To achieve the ob­jec­tives that the pres­i­dent set out — whether in restor­ing Amer­ica’s role, whether in de­feat­ing [the Is­lamic State] . . . con­tain­ing Iran . . . pro­mot­ing peace . . . in­vest­ment ... trade and pros­per­ity, Saudi Ara­bia is key.”

The king­dom’s po­si­tion at the top of Trump’s travel list, Jubeir said, “is not sur­pris­ing.”

Visit af­firms U.S. view of king­dom as chief Arab, Mus­lim ally

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