President Trump hailed a series of meetings and ceremonial events with Saudi officials Saturday as a “tremendous” success during his first trip abroad as president, as controversies surrounding around his administration mounted back home.
Upon arriving Saturday in Riyadh, his first stop on a nine-day trip to five countries, Trump and first lady Melania were greeted on a lush red carpet by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman before the president received the country’s top civilian honor, the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal, during a meeting at the Saudi Royal Court.
The visit culminated with the signing of a pledge to “counter violent extremism, disrupt the financing of terrorism and advance defense cooperation” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and agreeing to a massive arms sale to the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom worth nearly $110 billion.
“Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs,” Trump said after signing the deal. “That was a tremendous day. Tremendous investments in the United States.”
The arms sale touches broadly on bolstering Saudi air and missile defense as well as cybersecurity, border and maritime security. It also focuses on a modernization of the country’s air force.
Among the equipment secured by Saudi Arabia were tanks, planes, helicopters and a THAAD antimissile system.
“This huge arm sales package reduces the burden on the United States to provide the same equipment to our own military forces,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at a news conference shortly after the signing ceremony. “Lowers demand on our own military, but it also lowers the cost to our own people.”
The pomp and opulence of Trump’s visit marked for the Saudis something of a reset in ties between the two countries, which grew tense during the Obama administration.
Notably absent from Trump’s remarks Saturday in the country were any entreatments for Riyadh and Arab leaders in the region to show greater reverence for human rights and democracy – topics that became hallmarks of former President Barack Obama’s presence in the Middle East.
While Trump was eager for a warm reception from the Saudis, Melania Trump and the president’s elder daughter Ivanka did not dawn headscarves, continuing a tradition set by former first lady Michelle Obama. Female foreign dignitaries and officials visiting Saudi Arabia in recent years have also foregone the headscarves.
A flock of senior White House staffers joined the president for the trip, including chief of staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer and chief strategist Steve Bannon, as well as Cabinet members Tillerson and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who were spotted dancing with swords during a ceremonial event in the evening.
Trump will deliver an address in Riyadh on Sunday, in which he is expected to call for unity between the U.S. and Muslim world in the fight against extremist groups, dispensing with his often harsh rhetoric toward Muslims during his presidential campaign.
For the president, the trip abroad puts physical distance between Trump and the spate of controversies and scandals swirling in Washington surrounding the probe into alleged collusion between his campaign and Russia during last year’s presidential election.
Trump has faced a steady stream of news reports over the past 10 days that have time and again put the White House on the defensive, among them revelations that Trump asked recently fired FBI Director James Comey in February to end his bureau’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
It was also reported on Friday that the FBI had identified a current White House adviser close to Trump as a person of interest in its probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
But the coming week offers Trump his first opportunity as president to explain his approach to foreign policy to an international audience, as well as to tout U.S. companies to potential foreign investors.
Ross, the Commerce secretary, attended the Saudi-U.S. CEO Forum on Saturday, and Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn touted to reporters a number of business deals that had been struck with the Saudis.