Analysis: The surreal strangeness of President Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia
From the beginning, it was a conspicuous choice. The first stop on the maiden overseas voyage of the Trump presidency would not be continental cousin Canada or anglophone chum Britain - or even erstwhile wall-funder Mexico - but Saudi Arabia. Yes, Saudi Arabia, the abode of the holiest sites of a religion President Donald Trump once said "hates us," a country he once suggested would not exist without "the cloak of American protection."
Nevertheless, Trump heads to Saudi Arabia on Friday - with a cloud of intrigue and scandal tailing him all the way. According to a story in the New York Times, he is not happy about embarking on this trip and even told an aide that he wished to cut its nine-day itinerary in half. He is set for meetings with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Italy and Belgium, all of which could become gaffe-fests for the loose-lipped and inexperienced president.
But while Trump and his team may harbor reservations, the Saudis do not. The kingdom's leadership is keen on a reset of relations with the United States, which became strained under the Obama administration. A slate of lucrative deals, including a gigantic arms sale, are to be signed; new avowals of a "strategic partnership" will be declared. On an official website, a countdown clock is ticking away ahead of a joint Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh - an event the Saudis hope will reassert their primacy as a lead actor in the Middle East.
The Saudis are desperate to bring Washington back onside in their regional rivalry with Iran. They and officials from allied Gulf states saw Obama as aloof and acquiescent to Tehran's interests. They bitterly opposed the nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers, a sentiment shared by Trump.
"Under President Obama, there was a sense of betrayal," said Somayya Jabarti, editor of the Saudi Gazette newspaper, to my colleague Kevin Sullivan. "Saudis felt like the United States was someone we've known all our lives, and suddenly they were unrecognizable. Under Trump, this could be a potential era of restoration of relations."
The Saudis are certainly rolling out the red carpet for the weekend. There will be vintage car shows, sporting events and concerts, including a performance by American country music singer Toby Keith, who also crooned at Trump's inauguration. That sets up the rather surreal prospect of Keith belting out numbers such as "Whiskey Girl" and "Beer for My Horses" to an all-male audience in the capital of a country notorious for its draconian Islamic laws. (To be fair, there are worse choices.)
The surrealism will extend to the president himself. On the day of the concert, Trump is expected to deliver a speech about Islam. Quite what his message will be - the speech is being written by White House adviser Stephen Miller, an ideologue linked to white nationalism and Islamophobia - is unclear. Trump may use the occasion to backtrack from his more vehement comments about Islamic extremism and call instead for unity among religions - or he could veer into clumsy and probably unwelcome criticism.
But counterterrorism experts in Washington are worried about Trump's speech. In a recently conducted poll, 84 percent of Saudi youth said Trump was anti-Muslim. It's hard to imagine one moment of oratory will change their attitudes.
"I hope that this talk does not happen, because it is so fraught with rhetorical danger for the president," said William McCants, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy, speaking at a conference held by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington on Thursday. McCants, who has been critical of Trump's obsession with "radical Islam," did admit that he was "morbidly curious" to see what unfolds.
Critics of Trump's rhetoric fear it gives encouragement to zealots on the other side. "Extremists feed on one another," said McCants. "It's the jihadists who insist that Islam is a political ideology, and then the extremists here pick up on that. And it's a very difficult conversation to interrupt."
Trump could also be part of some other difficult conversations. The Saudi-led summit over the weekend may be attended by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Sudan is one of the Sunni states that the Saudis seek to marshal within their orbit. But it's highly unusual for an American president to be in the same venue as a leader so directly connected to a genocide - and who happens to lead a country that the United States lists as a state sponsor of terror.
Trump will also have to tread carefully when dealing with the Saudi royals and avoid the appearance of taking sides in the kingdom's bubbling war of succession between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The latter visited Trump in Washington in April and told The Washington Post that Trump is "a president who will bring America back to the right track."
This back-scratching will likely work on Trump. Don't expect this White House to provoke much friction with Riyadh. Trump will continue to support the bloody Saudi war in Yemen, which is now also in the grips of a hideous famine; he will almost certainly avoid lecturing the kingdom about its abysmal record on human rights; and it's unlikely that he would publicly call out the role that extremist preachers and certain Islamic charities in Saudi Arabia play in fomenting extremism and jihadist movements elsewhere.
In other words, Trump's visit could just be business as usual for an American president - something that would suit everyone involved.