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Trump charms some young Saudis with his deal-making and deference to customs. Others are unimpressed

Ivanka Trump addresses young Saudis at the Tweeps 2017 social media forum in Riyadh on May 21, 2017.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

Addressing Arab leaders here Sunday, President Trump highlighted the untapped potential of one of the region’s greatest resources, and it wasn’t oil — it was youth.

“Sixty-five percent of its population is under the age of 30,” Trump said at a summit convened by the Saudi monarch. “Like all young men and women, they seek great futures to build, great national projects to join, and a place for their families to call home.”

But many young people here were unsure what to make of Trump — and that may be a victory of sorts.

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Before Trump arrived here Saturday, Saudis knew him mostly for his caustic comments about Muslims, a ban on travel from six majority-Muslim countries and the suspension of refugee resettlement to the United States, said Anfal Riyadh, who was among several thousand young people at a forum Sunday on using social media to combat extremism.

“People were saying how can he say these things about Muslims and come to Saudi Arabia?” said Riyadh, a 22-year-old law student.

While some here continue to see Trump as biased against Muslims, he charmed others during the weekend visit with his deal-making and deference to local customs.

“I have mixed feelings,” said Muyassar Albar, a 28-year-old lawyer from Mecca, scanning WhatsApp posts about Trump’s visit as he waited for the forum to start. “I’m not like my other friends who really hate him. He loves the U.S.A., and he wants to make it better. Maybe somebody has to shake politics to change things.”

Albar saw social media posts about Trump participating in a traditional sword dance Saturday and photos of him bowing to accept a medal from King Salman. It was a gesture that played well here, especially with young people.

“We respect our elders. That’s a good deed, good manners,” Albar said.

Rana Hanaya, 27, who teaches interpreting at a local university, was among many young women in the crowd, some wearing head scarves and others in face-covering veils. She saw Trump’s visit as “confirmation of what’s to come, and that means lots of partnerships, not just business deals.”

Hanaya was especially excited to see Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, at Sunday’s forum — called Tweeps 2017 — and noted that First Lady Melania Trump had met with Saudi schoolchildren earlier in the day.

“If he came on his own, a lot of people might think it’s just a business thing,” Hanaya said of Trump. “Ivanka and Melania are both participating. It’s women’s empowerment for both Saudi and the United States.”

The Trump administration announced a series of military and economic agreements forged with Saudi Arabia, and that impressed some young Saudis who are impatient to develop and modernize their country.

“We were not expecting to finalize things so quickly,” said Basim Ibrahim, 31, who works for Global Shapers, a social media hub. “Most of the deals were about bringing companies to Saudi Arabia, technology — that’s important.”

Some of his friends thought the deals included too much military spending — around $110 billion — but Ibrahim disagreed. He noted that the U.S. arms sales included Black Hawk helicopters that would be manufactured in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s beneficial not only for the government, but for the people, creating jobs,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are working at these companies: Boeing, BAE Systems — engineers educated in the U.S.A. They don’t want to leave [Saudi Arabia] for jobs.”

He believes that Trump’s views about Muslims have changed since the election, in part because of his interactions with a new generation of Saudi leaders. “This is what we are trying to do: To give him a real picture of Saudi Arabia and Muslims,” he said.

Waiting for his mother at a mall in downtown Riyadh late Sunday, Mohammed Musharaf, 27, said he thought Trump’s visit went “better than I expected.”

“He’s not as they say: racist, hates Arabs,” said Musharaf, who just graduated from business school. “He is a businessman, which is better than a politician. That’s what the world needs: experience that benefits both countries.”

Ashwag Nuaimah had just finished shopping at a Zara clothing store with her sister and cousins.

“We were afraid before he came,” said Nuaimah, 36, a mother of four who started her own perfume business and said she was impressed by “the deals he makes with us.”

“It will be a leap forward, a big step,” said her sister Atheer, 20, of the partnership between the two countries.

Their cousin Latifah Abdullah, a 21-year-old office management student, expects a broadening of perspectives in both countries and hopes that will benefit Saudi women, who still face many barriers to full participation in their economy and government.

“There’s a lot changing here,” she said. “And in America also.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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