First stop on Trump's first official trip overseas signals Saudi Arabia's importance

(c) 2017, The Washington Post.

President Donald 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 12-hour 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 returns 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) anti-ballistic-missile 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."

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Keywords: national security