President Donald Trump has said that Saudi Arabia “blew up the World Trade Center” and wants “women as slaves and to kill gays.” He has also insisted that the oil-rich Arab kingdom provide the United States with free oil for a decade.
But when Trump takes his first overseas trip later this month, Saudi Arabia will be his first stop.
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It’s just the latest example of how Trump—who will continue to Israel and then the Vatican—is largely shelving his incendiary campaign views about the world in favor of more traditional diplomacy.
It’s also a reminder that however much politicians love to bash Saudi Arabia, they wind up realizing that the country’s oil wealth and regional influence make it virtually impossible to shun.
“The Saudis are part of the problem—but they’re also part of the solution, so that’s why you have to deal with them,” said Simon Henderson, a Saudi Arabia expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Barack Obama, who also complained about the Saudis as a candidate and never warmed to its theocratic regime, made Riyadh his first stop on his inaugural visit to the Middle East in June 2009 and returned several times.
Despite his record of Saudi-bashing, Trump will likely be welcomed warmly by the country’s monarch, King Salman. The Saudi leader considered Obama an unreliable ally and distrusted Obama’s diplomacy with Sunni Saudi Arabia’s mortal Shiite enemy, Iran.
Trump is also sure to receive a warm greeting in Israel from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resented the pressure Obama put on Israel to make peace with the Palestinians.
Trump’s Israel stop promises to be more reflective of establishment thinking than of his past rhetoric. He is not expected, for instance, to press his campaign vow to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—a move mainstream Middle East experts warn would trigger a dangerous Arab backlash.
And although a December poll found that 83 percent of Israelis consider Trump to be “pro-Israel,” he has surprised some observers by showing a relatively even hand between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump has urged Israel to curtail settlement expansion and hosted the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, for a friendly White House visit this week.
“He’s approached this like a stunningly conventional president,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Obama’s State Department. “That’s been a pleasant surprise.”
Some Netanyahu supporters in Washington and Israel, skeptical that an acceptable peace deal with the Palestinians is feasible, find Trump overly eager to break the historic impasse. “I will do whatever is necessary to facilitate [an] agreement … And we will get this done,” Trump said during a press appearance with Abbas Wednesday.
Hard-liners close to Netanyahu are especially anxious about reports that Trump is taking advice on Israel from an old friend, New York businessman Ronald Lauder, who has played a behind-the-scenes role in past peace talks, has ties to Palestinian officials, and who believes Trump can broker a deal.
In Riyadh, Trump will attend a gathering of Muslim leaders that will focus on the threats of terrorism and religious extremism. Speaking in the Rose Garden Thursday, Trump said he wanted “to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity and stability to the Middle East.”
That agenda is sure to address radical groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, both of which the Saudi royal family considers threats to its own survival—even as critics say the Saudi government tolerates a conservative religious establishment that inspires extremism.
Saudi Arabia was a regular Trump target on the campaign trail. Last June, he called on Hillary Clinton to return millions of dollars the Saudi government donated to the Clinton Foundation, noting that she had called on the country to “stop funding hate.”
Before his election, Trump routinely denounced Saudi Arabia as a retrograde moocher of American military protection.
“If Saudi Arabia, which has been making one billion dollars a day from oil, wants our help and protection, they must pay dearly! NO FREEBIES,” Trump tweeted in March 2015.
“If the Saudis are so concerned about Syria then they should go in themselves. Stop telling us to do their dirty work,” Trump tweeted in October 2013.
While Saudi-bashing makes for good politics, U.S. diplomats and military and intelligence officials work closely with the Saudis on issues like terrorism, Syria and Iran.
On Thursday, Trump spoke respectfully about the kingdom, calling Saudi Arabia “the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam,” Mecca and Medina, and describing his upcoming visit there as “historic.”
He hasn’t entirely muted has past views. Last week he told Reuters that the kingdom “has not treated us fairly because we are losing a tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia.”
Trump has also angered many Saudis with his effort to ban travel to the U.S. from six Muslim-majority countries, which many Muslims see as a form of bigotry.
But Saudi officials have given Trump a pass on the strident rhetoric, which they consider less important than his hard line on radicalism and his disinterest in pressing human rights and political reform.
“I believe Donald Trump is a friend to everybody, potentially,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told CNBC in mid-February. “I have no basis to question his motives.”