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Trump starts Saudi trip with massive arms deal

RIYADH: (Left) US President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz stop for coffee in the terminal of King Khalid International Airport following Trump’s arrival yesterday. (Right) Trump receives the Order of Abdulaziz Al-Saud medal from King Salman at the Saudi Royal Court. – AFP

RIYADH: The White House announced a huge arms deal with Saudi Arabia yesterday as US President Donald Trump took his first steps on the world stage, looking to leave mounting troubles behind at home. The $110 billion deal for Saudi purchases of US defense equipment and services came at the start of an eight-day foreign tour that will also take Trump to Jerusalem, the Vatican and meetings with leaders in Europe.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said deals worth in excess of $380 billion were signed during Trump’s visit. “That was a tremendous day. Tremendous investments in the United States,” Trump said at talks with Saudi King Salman. “Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.” White House spokesman Sean Spicer hailed the defense agreement as the “largest single arms deal in US history”. “This package of defense equipment and services support the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of Iranian threats,” a White House official said.

As well as the talks with Salman, Trump met the kingdom’s two powerful crown princes yesterday, before giving a speech on Islam to leaders of Muslim countries today. For Riyadh, the visit is an opportunity to rebuild ties with a key ally, strained under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama who Arab Gulf states suspected of a tilt towards their regional rival Iran.

The arms package includes a pledge by the kingdom to assemble 150 Lockheed Martin Blackhawk helicopters in Saudi Arabia, in a $6 billion deal expected to result in about 450 jobs in the kingdom. The military package also includes tanks, combat ships, missile defense systems, radar and communications, and cybersecurity technology. National oil giant Saudi Aramco was also expected to sign $50 billion of deals with US companies, part of a drive to diversify the kingdom’s economy beyond oil exports, Aramco’s chief executive Amin Nasser said. US technology and engineering conglomerate GE said it had signed $15 billion of agreements with Saudi organizations.

The US president was earlier given a warm welcome in the oil-rich kingdom – a mood in sharp contrast to Washington where pressure is building after fresh claims over his team’s alleged links to Moscow. Air Force One had barely taken off when it was announced late on Friday that James Comey, the former FBI chief fired by Trump, had agreed to testify publicly about Russian interference in the US elections. Reports also emerged that Trump had called Comey “a nut job” and that the FBI had identified a senior White House official as a “significant person of interest” in its probe of Russian meddling.

The president and first lady Melania Trump were greeted by King Salman as they disembarked at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh yesterday morning. Trump and his wife, who dressed conservatively in black but did not cover her hair as Saudi women are required to do, walked side-by-side to the tarmac where they both shook hands with the king. Trump in 2015 criticized then-first lady Michelle Obama for not wearing a headscarf during a visit to Saudi Arabia, saying on Twitter that her hosts had been “insulted”. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, also eschewed the scarf. Ivanka’s presence dominated Arabic Twitter traffic, with the phrase “bint Trump” – Arabic for daughter of Trump – trending.

Today’s speech to dozens of Muslim leaders has been touted as a major event – along the lines of a landmark address to the Islamic world given by Obama in Cairo in 2009. The speech will be especially sensitive given tensions sparked by the Trump administration’s attempted travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority nations and accusations of anti-Islamic rhetoric on the campaign trail. Trump wants Gulf states in particular to do more to tackle extremists such as the Islamic State group. In return he is expected to take a harder line on Iran, where it was announced yesterday that President Hassan Rouhani had won a resounding re-election victory as voters overwhelmingly backed his efforts to reach out to the world.

While most US presidents make their first foreign trip to neighboring Canada or Mexico, 70-year-old Trump has opted instead for the Middle East and Europe. He travels to Israel and the Palestinian Territories tomorrow and Tuesday, and then to the Vatican and to Brussels and Italy for NATO and G7 meetings. The trip is fraught with peril for the real estate magnate, who is known to dislike lengthy travel. The avalanche of revelations in the run-up to his departure has eroded Trump’s standing at home, and has revived questions about his ability to strike a presidential tone with his foreign counterparts.

The first leg of the trip is likely to be the easiest – Saudi leaders are keen to work with an administration they see as more in line with their goals. The normally austere kingdom put on a major display for the visit, with the streets of Riyadh lined with US and Saudi flags and billboards featuring Trump and King Salman. The next leg in Israel could be more complicated, despite the history of warm ties between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The visit is already awash in controversy, from a row over Trump’s planned visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest prayer site for Jews, to his alleged disclosure of Israeli intelligence to Russian officials.

After meeting Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Trump will see Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, part of his efforts to revive the long-stagnant peace process. On Tuesday Trump heads to Rome to meet with Pope Francis. The two men are at odds on everything from climate change to refugee policy, although the pontiff says he will give the US leader an open-minded hearing. The president will then meet NATO members in Brussels and attend a G7 summit in the Sicilian town of Taormina. These meetings – including with new French President Emmanuel Macron – will be closely watched for signs of whether Trump and traditional US allies in Europe can work together. – Agencies

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