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Despite his anti-Islam rhetoric, Trump will find warm welcome in Saudi Arabia

Anita Kumar, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- As a private citizen, businessman and presidential candidate, Donald Trump unleashed a long series of blistering attacks on the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

He accused the nation of blowing up the World Trade Center, treating women like slaves and failing to spend enough on defense. He demanded that its leaders send the United States a decade's worth of free oil. And he called one of the nation's princes goofy.

But as president, Trump has abandoned the stinging rhetoric he was known for in lieu of a friendlier message as he looks to restore relations with the country, which soured during his predecessor's tenure.

Trump, who has previously done business in Saudi Arabia, will arrive in Riyadh on Saturday for a two-day visit -- the surprising first stop of his ambitious maiden foreign trip as president -- armed with pledges to work with Saudi leaders to fight terrorism, boost economic development and counter nearby Iran.

"Inherent in his choices is his desire to be different from Obama," said Philip Gordon, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's no secret that in the end of the Obama years there was a lot of Saudi and Gulf discontent with U.S. policy on Iran, Syria, Yemen. And Trump's different. He's going to go and say he's different."

The day before he was to arrive, Saudi Arabia, home to some of Islam's holiest sites, was getting ready.

Hundreds of U.S. and Saudi flags were on display around the capital city. Massive billboards with photos of Trump and the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, and the words "Together We Prevail" were erected above the streets next to others showing President Franklin Roosevelt's meeting with King Salman's father in 1945. Some roads were already closed as parts of the president's entourage began arriving.

"This administration has a vision that matches the view of the kingdom with regards to the role of America in the world, with regards to getting rid of terrorism, with regards to confronting Iran, with regards to rebuilding relations with traditional allies, with regards to trade and investment," said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir, a former ambassador to the United States.

Trump's trip comes amid numerous scandals at home, recalling the visit of the first American president to travel to Saudi Arabia, Richard Nixon, who went in June 1974 as the Watergate crisis deepened; two months later, he resigned.

Trump may not be popular with the general population of the Persian Gulf countries, but he's extremely well-liked by their leaders, who can relate to his personality, his black-and-white outlook on life and his background running a family business -- an apt description for all the Gulf nations.

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