President Trump has arrived in Saudi Arabia’s capital to begin an eight-day foreign tour that will test the new administration’s capacity to manage complex international diplomacy and a growing political crisis at home.
Air Force One touched down at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport just before 10 a.m. local time, delivering the Republican who has angered Muslims around the world with his proposed travel ban to the nation that houses Islam’s most holy sites.
Saudi’s royal family is offering an elaborate welcome to a new U.S. president for whom they have great hopes of resetting a bilateral relationship that became increasingly strained during the Obama administration over its pursuit of a nuclear agreement with rival Iran.
The president, joined by First Lady Melania Trump, was greeted by Saudi King Salman on a red carpet rolled to the foot of the presidential jet, just moments before a military flyover.
“It’s a great honor,” Trump told the Saudi leader.
Trump and Salman proceeded to the airport’s VIP arrival terminal, chatting and sipping coffee for five minutes before the president boarded his motorcade to drive to his hotel.
The king was to host the U.S. president and the U.S. delegation later Saturday at the Royal Court for a banquet luncheon, presenting him with the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud, among the nation’s highest honors. The two leaders are also expected to sign agreements locking in a new $110-billion arms package to Saudi Arabia, and investments by the Arab state in the U.S. economy.
Trump will then hold separate meetings with the Saudi crown prince and deputy crown prince before traveling to the Murabba Palace for a third welcome ceremony and royal banquet dinner.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told reporters aboard Air Force One that the president spent the flight meeting with staff, reading newspapers and working on a major speech on Islam he is scheduled to deliver on Sunday to the Arab Islamic Summit.
The rest of the flight was spent getting very little sleep, Priebus said.
White House officials have alternately been eagerly awaiting the trip and gritting their teeth over its potential pitfalls. No modern president has attempted such an ambitious debut on the world stage, and Trump’s itinerary – which also includes a two-day visit to Israel, an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, and participation in NATO and G7 summits – is being carefully choreographed to present Trump as a confident commander-in-chief.
But his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey set off a fast-moving series of developments that turned questions over Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Moscow’s potential influence with key Trump aides into a full-blown crisis, distracting the president as he was meant to be ramping up preparation for the trip.
“As anyone who’s been involved with any of these trips knows, it’s all hands on deck – especially if you have multiple different stops where multiple different agenda topics need to come up,” said Richard Nephew, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked in the State Department under the Bush and Obama administrations and on Obama’s National Security Council. “There are lots of pitfalls here, starting with the fact that this administration has been for obvious reasons pretty distracted.”
But James Carafano, a foreign policy and national security analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation who advised the president during the campaign and his transition, said a successful trip could be just what the administration needs.
“The great thing about a foreign trip is, to a great extent you can stage manage it a lot more,” he said. “It does allow the president to detach a little bit from the heated political debate here in the United States and help him lay out how he’s going to engage in two very critical regions in the world.”
Even if the president has been focused elsewhere, his team has been invested in making the trip a success since the administration’s earliest days.
“I think there’s an enormous opportunity in Saudi Arabia to bring the whole Arab world together,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who met last week with other senior members of the committee and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell and senior adviser Jared Kushner to discuss the visit.
“They felt very neglected. The Iran agreement in particular was one that really caused them to feel like America’s priorities were not with them. And then you look at the fact that their relationship with Israel has never been better, it is a tremendous opportunity,” Corker said in an interview.
Despite Saudi unease with the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts with Iran, and Trump’s clear pledge to revisit the deal, Corker said he did not expect the agreement to be a major part of talks.
“I think over time most of the countries would like to see if there’s a way to renegotiate the agreement. Today’s not that time,” he said. “As time goes by over the next couple years, maybe there’s some opportunity for that. But I don’t think that’s what they’re going to focus on.”
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