Trump kicks off first foreign tour in Saudi Arabia, aiming to mend Muslim ties
MANDEL NGAN (AFP)
US President Donald Trump touched down in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on Saturday for the start of his first foreign tour since taking office while political scandals mount at home.
A red carpet was rolled out and staircase rolled up to Air Force One minutes after it landed shortly before 9:50 am (0650 GMT) local time. Trump and his wife Melania, who dressed conservatively in black but did not cover her hair, walked side-by-side to the tarmac where they both shook hands with Saudi King Salman.
Trump's daughter and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump and Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner exited from the rear of the plane, holding hands as they walked across the tarmac.
The US president and King Salman made their way to a reception room at King Khalid International Airport, where they chatted over coffee.
At a second reception shortly after, King Salman awarded Trump the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal, which is considered to be the kingdom's highest honor.
Trump later took to his favorite medium -- Twitter -- to say he is "looking forward to the afternoon and evening ahead." The US president is set to hold talks with leaders in the ultra-conservative kingdom later in the day.
But all eyes will be on a speech on Islam that the president is scheduled to deliver to some 50 Muslim leaders at a summit in Riyadh on Sunday as he seeks to rebuild relations with the Muslim world, still strained by his controversial travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority nations.
The president is expected to use the address to call for unity in the fight against radicalism in the Muslim world, deeming the challenge a "battle between good and evil" and urging Arab leaders to "drive out terrorists from your places of worship," according to a draft of the speech obtained by The Associated Press (AP).
We welcome @POTUS Trump to KSA. Mr. President, your visit will strengthen our strategic cooperation, lead to global security and stability.— سلمان بن عبدالعزيز (@KingSalman) May 20, 2017
The White House confirmed the draft was authentic, but cautioned that it was one of five written and that the President has yet to sign off on a final version of the text.
The speech tempers Trump's previous anti-Islamic rhetoric, making no mention of "radical Islamic terrorism" -- a term he routinely criticized Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for avoiding.
"This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations. This is a battle between those who seek to obliterate human life and those who seek to protect it," the text reads. "This is a battle between good and evil."
It also offers a more muted focus on democracy and human rights in what is seen as an effort to strike a contrast with predecessor Barack Obama, who was critical of Saudi Arabia's rights record and was viewed with suspicion by Gulf Arab states for his tilt towards their Shiite regional rival Iran.
"We are not here to lecture — to tell other peoples how to live, what to do or who to be. We are here instead to offer partnership in building a better future for us all," the draft says.
He esteems himself as an “emissary for the American people, to deliver a message of friendship and hope,” according to the draft.
- Warm welcome -
Trump received a warm reception in the oil-rich kingdom, but the domestic mood was grim following news that the FBI's investigation into his campaign's ties with Russia extends to a current senior White House official.
Before departing, the president tweeted he would be "strongly protecting American interests" on his marathon eight-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, that presents a major diplomatic test.
Getting ready for my big foreign trip. Will be strongly protecting American interests - that's what I like to do!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 19, 2017
Trump's visit to the Gulf is expected to bring lucrative arms contracts for US firms, with reports that he will announce a $110 billion package in advanced arms and training with the Saudis.
Ahead of his visit, Washington and Riyadh issued their first "joint terrorist designation" -- blacklisting a leader of the Iranian-backed Lebanese armed Shiite movement Hezbollah.
Late Friday, Saudi Arabia announced it had shot down a ballistic missile fired by Yemeni rebels southwest of Riyadh.
The US provides weapons, intelligence and aerial refueling to the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Huthi rebels, who are backed by Iran and oppose the government of Yemen President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
- Fraught with peril -
While most US presidents make their first foreign trip to neighboring Canada or Mexico, 70-year-old Trump has opted for six stops -- Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, the Vatican, Brussels, and Sicily.
The White House touts a "historic" trip during which Trump -- in visits to Saudi Arabia, the Vatican and Jerusalem -- will reach out to leaders of the world's major monotheistic faiths.
Trump will hold countless face-to-face meetings including with Pope Francis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and France's new leader, Emmanuel Macron.
It is a trip fraught with peril for the real estate magnate, who is known to dislike lengthy travel.
An avalanche of revelations in the run-up to his departure have eroded Trump's standing at home -- where the parallels with Richard Nixon's ill-fated presidency are now being openly drawn.
The flurry of domestic scandals have revived questions about his ability to strike a presidential tone with his foreign counterparts, with Trump declaring himself the victim of the "greatest witch hunt" in American political history.
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
Former FBI director James Comey has agreed to publicly testify about the probe, piling pressure on the White House as fresh allegations emerged about Trump calling him a "nut job" in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week and saying his sacking had relieved "great pressure".
After Saudi Arabia, Trump will head to Israel and the Palestinian Territories where he hopes to revive the moribund peace process.
Since Trump's inauguration in January, his Middle East peace policy has been in flux. While Trump has articulated support for peace between the two sides, he has yet to explicitly endorse the creation of a fledgling Palestinian state, or join the international consensus supporting a two-state solution.
Meanwhile, the Israeli leg of Trump's trip is already awash in controversy -- from a row over his visit to Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest prayer site for Jews, to Trump's alleged disclosure of Israeli intelligence to Russian officials.
(Staff with agencies)
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