S. Arabia, US agree to huge arms deal during Trump visit

Updated May 21, 2017

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Riyadh: Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud smiles approvingly as US President Donald Trump joins in a traditional sword dance welcome ceremony ahead of a banquet at Al Murabba Palace on Saturday.—Reuters
Riyadh: Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud smiles approvingly as US President Donald Trump joins in a traditional sword dance welcome ceremony ahead of a banquet at Al Murabba Palace on Saturday.—Reuters

RIYADH: The White House announced a huge arms deal with Saudi Arabia on Saturday as President Donald Trump took his first steps on the world stage, looking to leave mounting troubles behind at home.

The $110 billion deal for Saudi purchases of US defence equipment and services came at the start of an eight-day foreign tour that will take Trump also to Jerusalem, the Vatican and meetings with leaders in Europe.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said deals worth in excess of $380bn had been signed on Saturday.

“That was a tremendous day. Tremendous investments in the United States,” Trump said at talks with Saudi King Salman.

“Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The US president was given a warm welcome in the oil-rich kingdom — a mood in sharp contrast to Washington where pressure is building after fresh claims over his team’s alleged links to Moscow.

Air Force One had barely taken off when it was announced late on Friday that James Comey, the former FBI chief fired by Trump, had agreed to testify publicly about Russian interference in the US elections.

Warm welcome

The president and first lady Melania Trump were greeted by King Salman as they disembarked at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh in the morning. Trump and his wife, who dressed conservatively in black but did not cover her hair as Saudi women are required to do, walked side-by-side to the tarmac where they both shook hands with the 81-year-old king.

It was a more favourable welcome than had been granted last year to Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, who was seen in the Arab kingdom as soft on Iran and hesitant on Syria.

Trump and King Salman seemed at ease with each other, chatting through an interpreter. At the royal al-Yamama palace, the king draped around Trump’s neck the King Abdulaziz medal, the country’s top civilian honour.

The king was overheard lamenting the Syrian war to Trump. “Syria too used to be one of the most advanced countries. We used to get our professors from Syria.... Unfortunately, they too brought destruction to their own country. You can destroy a country in mere seconds, but it takes a lot of effort,” he said.

Trump’s response could not be heard.

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Sean Spicer hailed the defence agreement with Riyadh as the “largest single arms deal in US history”.

“This package of defence equipment and services support the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region in the face of Iranian threats,” a White House official said.

Trump would give a speech on Islam to leaders of Muslim countries on Sunday.

For Riyadh the visit is an opportunity to rebuild ties with a key ally, strained under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama who Arab Gulf states suspected of a tilt towards their regional rival Iran.

Speech to Muslim leaders

Sunday’s speech to dozens of Muslim leaders has been touted as a major event — along the lines of a landmark address to the Islamic world given by Obama in Cairo in 2009.

The speech will be particularly sensitive given tensions sparked by the Trump administration’s attempted travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority nations and accusations of anti-Islam rhetoric on the campaign trail.

While most US presidents make their first foreign trip to neighbouring Canada or Mexico, 70-year-old Trump has opted instead for the Middle East and Europe.

He travels to Israel and the Palestinian Territories on Monday and Tuesday, and then to the Vatican and to Brussels and Italy for Nato and G7 meetings.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2017