Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump receives Saudi Arabia’s highest honour before US$350bn arms deal announced

White House officials hope the trip marks an opportunity for Trump to recalibrate after one of the most difficult stretches of his young presidency

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 May, 2017, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 May, 2017, 11:19pm

US President Donald Trump, in the first stop of his maiden trip abroad, received a regal welcome on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, feted by the wealthy kingdom as he aims to forge strong alliances to combat terrorism while pushing past the multiple controversies threatening to engulf his young administration.

The White House later confirmed an arms deal worth US$350 billion over 10 years, with US$110 billion of payments to take effect ­immediately. The deal was hailed by the White House as “a significant expansion of ... [the] security relationship” between the two nations.

Trump arrived in Riyadh after an overnight flight and was welcomed at elaborate airport ceremony punctuated by a military flyover and a handshake from Saudi King Salman.

He is the only American president to make Saudi Arabia, or any majority Muslim country, his first stop overseas – a choice ­designed in part to show respect to the region after more than a year of Trump’s harsh anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric.

After two days of meetings there, Trump will travel to Israel, have an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican and meet with allies at a Nato summit in Brussels and the G7 nations in Sicily.

Trump waved from the doorway after Air Force One touched down and before descending the staircase with first lady Melania Trump. The 81-year-old King Salman, who used a cane for support, was brought to the steps of the plane in a golf cart. The leaders exchanged pleasantries and Trump said it was “a great honour” to be there. Several jets then flew overhead leaving a red, white and blue trail.

Soon after, Trump tweeted for the first time on international soil as president. “Great to be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Looking forward to the afternoon and evening ahead.”

At a later ceremony at the grand Saudi Royal Court, the king placed the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud, the nation’s highest civilian honour, around Trump’s neck. The medal, given to Trump for his efforts to strengthen ties in the region, has also been bestowed on Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

The king and Trump were overheard discussing natural resources and arms, and the king bemoaned the destruction caused by Syria’s civil war.

Melania Trump, the first lady, wore a black pantsuit with a golden belt and did not cover her head, consistent with the custom for foreign dignitaries visiting Saudi Arabia. Her husband had criticised former first lady Michelle Obama for not wearing a headscarf during a 2015 visit to the kingdom.

The centrepiece of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia is a speech today at the Arab-Islamic-American summit. White House aides view the address as a counter to Obama’s 2009 speech to the Muslim world, which Trump criticised as too apologetic for US actions in the region.

Trump will call for unity in the fight against radicalism in the Muslim world, casting the challenge as a “battle between good and evil” and urging Arab leaders to “drive out the terrorists from your places of worship”.