On Saturday, 20 May 2017, US President Donald Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyad; the first stop on a nine-day tour throughout the Middle-East and Europe. The tour will cross four nations, with five stops. Notably, the stops will take him through Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Italy. These stops were chosen with the view of uniting three of the world’s most dominant religions. The American President was warmly welcomed, with several jets flying overhead leaving a trail of red, white and blue. King Salman was there to greet Trump and his wife, First Lady Melania Trump. The First Lady was presented with flowers.
For the first time in history, an American president has made Saudi Arabia his first foreign stop, supposedly a mark of good faith and the hope of strengthened relations. Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir has been forthright with Saudi Arabia’s enthusiasm for Trump’s visit, saying that he hopes that the meetings between Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz will be “the beginning of a turning point” between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and its Gulf allies. Excitement could be seen throughout the city, with billboards featuring Trump and King Salman with the slogan “Together We Prevail.”
This is in stark contrast with the welcome that met previous US President Barack Obama, who was seen as being too soft on issues regarding Iran and Syria. In comparison, President Trump has vowed to “tear up” Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia and Iran have a complicated relationship, with the former being concerned with the latter’s growing influence in the area. In particular, there are concerns regarding Iran’s growing influence in Syria.
Conversations between the leaders resulted in Trump securing a US$110 billion arms deal, in addition to other deals which could be worth over US$200 billion. Trump spoke to journalists after the deals were sealed, saying that it was a “tremendous day,” with “hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.”
As with presidents, such as Barack Obama and Russian Vladimir Putin, who have visited the country before him, President Donald Trump was honoured with Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian honour: the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud. He was given the award for his efforts to strengthen ties in the region. While he did bend slightly to allow the King to place the award over his head, he did not appear to bow, although many have taken to social media to accuse him of doing so. Many may view the lack of a proper bow as a mark of disrespect, but his refusal to bow to the King is unsurprising. In 2012, Barack Obama was presented with the same award and was sharply criticised by Trump for bowing to the then-Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Trump openly criticised Obama at the time for bowing when receiving his award, saying, “Do we still want a President who bows to the Saudis?”
Mrs. Trump came under fire for choosing not to wear a headscarf in recognition of the country’s conservative dress code. Dress codes in Saudi Arabia are strictly enforced, with women typically pictured as wearing long black cloaks called abayas paired with the hijab or niqab. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, also accompanied the President and his wife and chose not to wear a headscarf.
Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir told the media on Thursday that Melania Trump would not be required to dress conservatively when she accompanied her husband on the trip, saying that the government “usually doesn’t demand” that female dignitaries adhere to the country’s dress code, but that they do make “suggestions.” Most surprising is that, in 2012, Trump criticized Obama’s wife, Michelle, for not donning a headscarf. He tweeted, “Many people are saying it was wonderful that Mrs. Obama refused to wear a scarf in Saudi Arabia, but they were insulted. We have enuf [sic] enemies.”
However, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump are not alone. In 2008, First Lady Laura Bush declined to wear a headscarf. And earlier this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also opted not to wear headscarves. Some female diplomats have refused to wear headscarves under the view that they are a marker of female oppression.
On Sunday, the President is expected to make a speech regarding his desire to confront Islamic extremism. Trump is expected to attend three summits: the Saudi Arabia and United States Summit, the Gulf Cooperation Council and United States Summit, and the Arab Islamic Relations Summit. Although his campaign was full of unforgiving anti-Muslim rhetoric, which some Saudi Arabians have yet to forgive, there is hope that Trump’s visit will be the beginning of him making amends. His speech is said to preach religious tolerance in the hopes of gaining support from the Arab in the United States’ war on terror.
The media has been preoccupied with revealing Trump’s hypocrisies, and the beginning of his presidency has been heavily marred by controversy. Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that tour will give the world and, specifically, Americans, the opportunity “to see him in a different setting.” Thus far, it appears that people are far more concerned with relatively insignificant aspects of the tour, such as headscarves and bowing. While insignificant in comparison to the deals and political alliances he has the potential of cementing, these aspects do continue to contribute to the persona that Trump has built through his campaign presidency. He’s been viewed as hypocritical, culturally insensitive, and lacking respect. Unfortunately, although his first official steps out of the country could have been a game changer in terms of public image, it appears that little will result from it.
It will be interesting to see how Trump responds to other royals that he is slated to meet on the remainder of his tour. For example, he is expected to meet Queen Elizabeth II of England and her husband, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh. In addition to this, it will be interesting to see how this tour, and any political connections made during it, fits with President Trump’s unapologetic “America First” policies and rhetoric. With his upcoming speech emphasising his hopes that Arab nations will join the United States against radical Islamism, it appears that “America First” may not be synonymous with “America Alone.”