Trump’s newfound ardor for the Saudi regime is a far cry from his past positions, including his campaign season assertion that the Saudis were behind the 9/11 attacks and complaints, as recently as this April, that the United States was losing a “tremendous amount of money” defending the kingdom. That was yet another example of the sort of bad deal that President Trump was going to set right as part of his “America First” foreign policy.
Given this background, it came as a surprise to pundits, politicians, and foreign policy experts alike when the president chose Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, as the very first stop on his very first overseas trip. This was clearly meant to underscore the importance his administration was suddenly placing on the need to bolster the long-standing U.S.-Saudi alliance.
Mindful of Trump’s vanity, the Saudi government rolled out the red carpet for him, lining the streets for miles with alternating U.S. and Saudi flags, huge images of which were projected onto the Ritz Carlton hotel where Trump was staying. (Before his arrival, in a sign of the psychological astuteness of his Saudi hosts, the hotel projected a five-story-high image of Trump himself onto its façade, pairing it with a similarly huge and flattering photo of the country’s ruler, King Salman.) His hosts also put up billboards with pictures of Trump and Salman over the slogan “together we prevail.” What exactly the two countries were to prevail against was left open to interpretation. It is, however, unlikely that the Saudis were thinking about Trump’s much-denounced enemy, ISIS — given that Saudi planes, deep into a war in neighboring Yemen, have rarely joined Washington’s air war against that outfit. More likely, what they had in mind was their country’s bitter regional rival Iran.