DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia is making every effort to dazzle and impress President Donald Trump on his first overseas trip, seizing on the visit to cement itself as a major player on the world stage and shove aside rival Iran.
The kingdom has arranged a dizzying schedule of events for the two days Trump will be in town — inviting figures as varied as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, Bret Baier, a host on the Fox News Channel that is popular with Trump and his supporters, and American country singer Toby Keith who is to perform for a male-only crowd in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Trump’s decision to make Saudi Arabia his first overseas stop sends a powerful message to the kingdom: the strained ties that marked U.S.-Saudi relations under President Barack Obama are over.
The kingdom wants Trump to align U.S. interests with Saudi Arabia’s — and is literally counting down the seconds until Trump starts his meetings Saturday. A website for the visit was launched in English, Arabic and French, featuring a countdown clock under the banner: “Together We Prevail.”
“The foundation will be laid for a new beginning” to confront extremist ideology, the website declares, while also touting Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 a wide-reaching reform plan launched by King Salman’s ambitious son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to overhaul the economy and restyle the country through greater openings for investment and entertainment .
For Saudi Arabia, the most significant event is the Arab-Islamic-U.S. summit, where it plans to showcase the kingdom’s reach and drawing power.
King Salman is convening more than 50 Arab and Muslim leaders for the summit in Riyadh on Sunday. They will feast with Trump at a banquet and “forge a new partnership ” in the war against extremism, the king said this week. Sudan’s president, who has been shunned by the United States for the past decade, is among those invited.
“Saudi Arabia is delighted at being the No. 1 (stop for Trump’s visit), delighted by the re-emergence of a strong diplomatic relationship with the United States and delighted by the opportunity to show off Saudi leadership of the Arab and the Muslim world by getting everybody to turn up in Riyadh for multiple, overlapping summits,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.
Saudi Arabia has long vied to be the Islamic world’s center of influence. The kingdom hosts millions of Muslim pilgrims annually at holy sites in Mecca and Medina — a fact that Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, noted when announcing Trump’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia first.
The kingdom’s control of the holy sites has been criticized by Muslims around the world. In 2015, two major accidents killed several thousand pilgrims, including at least 2,400 people in a crush and stampede of crowds.
Though the Saudi government is framing Trump’s visit around a theme of friendship with Washington, prominent Saudis say it boils down to strategic interests .
“President Trump will not come to Riyadh because he loves us. The Gulf and Muslim leaders will not come to Riyadh because they love him,” writer Ziad al-Drees wrote in the pan-Arabic newspaper al-Hayat.
“The common interests of these international leaders are what bring them together in Riyadh,” he said, including issues ranging from terrorism to rekindling U.S. ties post-Obama.
Iran and Syria were not invited to the summit and they are not part of an Islamic military alliance that Saudi Arabia is establishing to fight terrorism. The kingdom backs efforts to topple the Syrian government, which counts Iran and Russia as its closest allies.
Saudi Arabia has welcomed Trump’s hard rhetoric on Iran, which contrasts with the outreach that culminated in the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed said earlier this month that Obama “wasted many significant opportunities” in Syria.
The Sunni-ruled kingdom views Shiite-ruled Iran’s influence in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq as a danger to its security. Prince Mohammed has ruled out any dialogue with Iran, framing the tensions in sectarian terms and accusing Iran of trying to “control the Islamic world”.
The prince’s foundation is hosting the forum where Trump is expected to deliver a speech to the Muslim world on Sunday.
Turki Aldakhil, who runs the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel, wrote that Trump’s visit restores “what Obama ruined.” He described Trump’s past criticisms of Saudi Arabia and his talk of a Muslim ban as electoral propaganda that has “nothing to do with his effective political programs.”
Saudi Arabia wants to seize on Trump’s visit to show itself as an earnest partner in the war on terror. Among the weekend events are a counterterrorism forum and the opening of a center to “fight radical thought.”
William McCants, director of U.S. relations with the Islamic world at the Brookings Institute, says the Saudis are keen to prove to Trump that he is “getting a good deal” by aligning himself closely with Riyadh. In a post for the think tank, McCants said Saudi royals may be willing to rein in ultraconservative Wahhabi proselytizing if Trump presses them to do more to stop promoting religious intolerance abroad.
“If he doesn’t, the Saudis will have gotten the better deal,” McCants said.
With all eyes on Trump’s visit, the kingdom will attempt to draw attention to a softer side rarely seen. A parallel art exhibition focuses on modern Saudi art and a Twitter forum will engage young Saudis on how to “utilize social media networks to counter extremism and terrorism.” It is at this event where Trump is scheduled to make his address. It is also where Fox’s Baier is confirmed as a speaker.
Twitter is wildly popular among Saudis and is rife with criticisms of the government, which has cracked down on users who openly criticize the royal family or religious establishment. In 2015, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was publicly lashed as part of a 10-year prison sentence for posts critical of the country’s ultraconservative clerics.
While Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on freedom and ban on women driving often grab headlines, Trump is not expected to make human rights concerns a centerpiece of his talks with Saudi royals on Saturday. Instead, the focus will be on securing more multi-billion dollar military deals, advancing economic ties and isolating Iran, according to analysts.
Saudi Arabia, which wants Trump to do more to assist in its war in Yemen and help in the fight to oust President Bashar Assad, has arranged separate talks between Trump and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.
All are members of the U.S. coalition striking Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, as well as among the world’s top energy producers and biggest military spenders. The largest U.S. military base in the Middle East is in Qatar, and Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which frequently has tense encounters with Iran’s navy in the Persian Gulf.
Rounding out the weekend’s events is a U.S.-Saudi business forum with CEOs from companies like GE and Dow Chemical, as well as Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company Aramco. Partnership agreements in energy and technology will likely be signed.
Some warn the agenda could be too ambitious.
“The meetings in Saudi Arabia will have the danger of appearing overwhelming and almost confusing rather than producing some meaningful conclusions,” said Henderson of The Washington Institute. “Just think of how long it takes to shake people by the hand.”