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Trump signs Saudi arms deal on first foreign trip

May 20, 2017 at 5:20 PM EDT
President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia Saturday on his first stop abroad as commander-in-chief. During the visit, he signed several deals with Saudi King Salman, including a military sales worth billions and a commitment to cooperate on defense. Ben Hubbard, Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, joins Alison Stewart from Riyadh to discuss the trip.
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ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: “New York Times” correspondent Ben Hubbard is in Riyadh, covering the visit and joins me now via Skype.

Ben, this trip has been billed as an opportunity to reset the American-Saudi relationship. What needs resetting?

BEN HUBBARD, NEW YORK TIMES CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think from the Saudi perspective, there’s a lot of things that need resetting. The Saudis, you know, which have been American allies in the Middle East for many, many decades, felt — I think — and, you know, we can say they felt very deceived under President Obama. There was anger over the way that Obama seemed to give up on Hosni Mubarak and other Arab allies during Arab spring protests. They were angry at his hesitancy to get more — to get involved in the war on Syria.

And the Iran deal was a huge blow to them. They very much felt that this president, who was supposed to be one of our great allies, went behind our back and made this deal with one of our enemies.

Then after Trump was elected, there’s very much a sense here that this is a guy who understands us. This is a guy that we can do business with. This is somebody that — you know, has said all the right things when it comes to things that we care about, which are fighting, you know, terrorist organizations and specifically with confronting Iran.

STEWART: Ben, let’s talk a little bit more about business. Can you tell me about that $110 billion weapons deal that was struck today?

HUBBARD: Yes, and it could end up being I think $350 billion over the next 10 years. They’re going to build a number of high-tech helicopters here in the kingdom, and another — other deals that are expected to come through tomorrow, dealing with oil and technologies and various other industries.

STEWART: Ben, has there been any reaction to Mr. Trump’s statements that offended many Muslims?

HUBBARD: What’s remarkable — I mean, I spent a lot of time kind of outside of the — you know, the area of where the officials are. Yesterday, I went to — I went to a Harley Davidson rally actually. And, you know, met all these Saudis who love Harley Davidsons, and it’s quite amazing how many Saudis would just tell you how much they love Trump. They’re just very excited about him. They feel like this is a guy that we can understand.

And, you know, you try to push them on things, what about all the things that he said about Islam or these things that he said about your country? They seem a lot more willing that I think a lot of Americans to just dismiss it as campaign rhetoric, which is very interesting. So, you know, there’s been a concerted media campaign inside the kingdom and I think it’s trickled down and I think a lot of people just kind of felt that like, OK, this is going to be a guy that we can — we can do business with.

STEWART: Ben, Mr. Trump is slated to give a speech tomorrow. Is there any indication with the tone, the tenor, the content?

HUBBARD: No, and it’s interesting. This is the one thing that a number of Saudi contacts I have, have expressed some discomfort over. They’ve kind of said, hmmm, you know, Trump is going to give a speech about Islam. Hmmm, we need to see how this is going to go.

So, I wouldn’t say people are too scared of it, but it’s one thing people have kind of — you know, it’s raised a lot of eyebrows we could say. You know, we can assume that what really interests him in this relationship is fighting extremism. I mean, the Saudis have been under threat from the Islamic State and the Islamic State has carried out a number of attacks inside the kingdom, deadly attacks. And so, I think, you know, this is another area where they think that they can do business with Trump.

STEWART: Ben Hubbard from “The New York Times” from Riyadh — thanks so much.

HUBBARD: Thank you.

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