American flags lined the streets of this Arab capital Friday as Saudi Arabia prepared a motorcycle rally, a concert by country singer Toby Keith and lavish palace festivities organized by King Salman’s royal court to honor the arrival of the desert kingdom’s biggest potential business partner yet: Donald Trump.
While Trump has taken heat from Muslims in the U.S. for his anti-terrorism travel ban and his overtures to Israel, here in the Gulf, the conservative Arab sheikdoms are welcoming the new administration as a return to transactional diplomacy in the Middle East.
The White House they see now is presided over by a strong leader — a model Gulf monarchs recognize from their own governing styles — and if Trump surrounds himself with business-friendly family members high in his administration, well, so do they.
Key to this weekend’s meetings with Trump and his team, as Arab leaders see it, will be identifying opportunities to do business and cut diplomacy deals.
Traveling with the Trump team will be dozens of U.S. business leaders, including the heads of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Dow Chemical and General Electric.
Nearly 40 heads of state from across the Islamic world, joined by Arab business leaders, are also expected to gather to see what Trump has to offer.
Saudi Aramco, the national oil giant that is preparing to open itself to outside investment for the first time next year, will be talking deals with U.S. oil services companies.
“Saudi Arabia is transforming. The government is getting into the business mode on a fast track and this is where Trump comes from. He wants to make a lot of deals. Saudi Arabian leaders understand this language and they’re excited,” said Ahmed Alibrahim, a Saudi businessman who lobbies his government on behalf of U.S. companies.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, will host Trump at a summit on Sunday.
“The GCC countries are not only excited about Trump, but the people he’s chosen to have around him,” said Alibrahim, who dismissed Obama as “the worst president ever,” unwilling to confront Iran and its Shiite Muslim proxies in Syria and neighboring Yemen, whom the Sunni leaders of the Gulf see as rivals.
“We suffered for the past eight years a weak America,” Alibrahim said.
Some of Trump’s advisors had previous connections to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis served as commander of U.S. Central Command, which includes the Middle East. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in his past role as chief executive of ExxonMobil, maintained deep business ties with Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.
Saudis, at least at the official level, appear eager to move past the Obama administration’s focus on human rights, including its frequent talk of promoting the standing of women in a kingdom where their ability to vote, run for office, own property, travel and even drive is less than that of men.
Hoda Helassi, one of 30 women appointed to the Saudi monarchy’s 150-member consultative council, said Obama failed to take into account how much progress Saudi women have made.
“We have fought for our modern rights and we are getting them,” said Helassi, who planned to participate in a panel discussion and attend meetings with Ivanka Trump this weekend.
“There is an air of positiveness, an atmosphere of hope with this visit and I hope it pans out,” Helassi said. “There are more areas of common ground than there were before. It’s this administration understanding the necessity to change at the pace of Saudi society. A lot of what happened in the past was not understanding why or where we are.”
Gulf leaders see Trump as a businessman first, a president who has pursued a transactional foreign policy that fits with their notion of how deals get done. That includes what’s shaping up to be a $100-billion U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia and a $40-billion Saudi investment in Trump’s domestic infrastructure plan.
Tillerson, signaled in March that the Trump administration would lift the Obama-era restrictions on a $2.8-billion sale of U.S. fighter jets and other arms to Bahrain, imposed over human rights concerns.
“What Trump is doing is resetting that relationship.” said Faisal Abbas, editor of the Jidda-based Arab News.
Trump will have to tread lightly, given his recent proposed travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries and anti-Muslim rhetoric, which provoked outcry in the Middle East.
But the president’s policies on Iran and Syria, welcomed by Gulf Arabs, and the many business deals in the offing, are likely to mute any potential criticism here in the Gulf. His expected speech to Arab leaders about Islam on Sunday, seen by some as a potential diplomatic minefield, will likely register as little more than “background noise,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
The president successfully hosted several Arab leaders earlier this year, including Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, a former general criticized for jailing dissidents and other rights violations.
“Trump is a welcome change from Barack Obama because he does not remind them, does not pressure them, about American values and ideas about human rights and democracy. This president is a hardcore realist: He just doesn’t care. This goes well with many leaders in this part of the world,” Gerges said.
Trump has already impressed Gulf Arab leaders by escalating the war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria and supporting the Saudi fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“What the Trump team is trying to do is send a message near and far that Trump’s doctrine ‘America First’ does not necessarily contradict American leadership overseas, particularly in the Middle East,” Gerges said. “They’re trying to reassure America’s allies that America has their back.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said Trump’s decision to make his first state visit to the Gulf demonstrates just that.
“What’s wrong with an American president saying ‘America First’?” Jubeir said during a briefing at the foreign ministry ahead of Trump’s arrival. “We are the largest purchaser of American defense equipment. Millions of American jobs depend on the relationship with Saudi Arabia. American lives depend on the security cooperation between the kingdom and the United States.”
Arab officials here see Trump as “a practical, pragmatic businessman” and a trustworthy, cosmopolitan “man of the world” Jubeir said.
“We are very supportive of the policies the Trump administration is pursuing,” he added. “We share a very, very large amount of intelligence with the United States and vice versa. We will not have any hesitation about continuing to do so.”