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Saudis set to fete Trump

Kingdom sees his visit as ‘a new beginning’

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Photographs by AP/NARIMAN EL-MOFTY

Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in September. Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump’s first overseas stop, hosts millions of Muslim pilgrims annually at holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Saudi Arabia is making every effort to dazzle and impress President Donald Trump on his first overseas trip, seizing on the visit to cement itself as a major player on the world stage and shove aside rival Iran.

The kingdom has arranged a schedule of events for the two days Trump will be there -- inviting figures as varied as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court; Bret Baier, a host on the Fox News Channel that is popular with Trump and his supporters; and American country singer Toby Keith, who is to perform for a male-only crowd in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

The kingdom wants Trump to align U.S. interests with Saudi Arabia's and is literally counting down the seconds until Trump starts his meetings Saturday. A website for the visit was launched in English, Arabic and French, featuring a countdown clock under the banner: "Together we prevail."

"The foundation will be laid for a new beginning" to confront extremist ideology, the website says, while also touting Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, a plan started by King Salman's son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to overhaul the economy and restyle the country through greater openings for investment and entertainment.

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For the U.S., senior Trump administration officials have sought to dispel concerns that the political scandals swirling around the White House will distract from the trip.

"This trip will convey that America is back," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a news conference at the State Department.

After visiting Saudi Arabia, Trump will visit Israel and Vatican City before he attends NATO and G-7 summits in Brussels and Sicily, respectively.

Tillerson said governments that had felt "neglect and outright dismissal" under President Barack Obama were eager for "the re-engagement of America."

Obama had notably frosty relationships with leaders in Saudi Arabia and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But he was greatly admired in most of Europe, polls showed, and worked closely with Pope Francis to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

For Saudi Arabia, the most significant event is the Arab-Islamic-U.S. summit, where it plans to showcase the kingdom's reach and drawing power.

King Salman is convening more than 50 Arab and Muslim leaders for the summit in Riyadh on Sunday. They will feast with Trump at a banquet and "forge a new partnership" in the war against extremism, the king said this week. Sudan's president, who has been shunned by the United States for the past decade, is among those invited.

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Expected to attend are 37 heads of state and at least six prime ministers, said Osama Nugali, a spokesman for the Saudi Foreign Ministry.

Among the invitees is al-Bashir of Sudan, although it remains unclear whether he will attend or, if he does, whether he will meet Trump.

"He is invited definitely because it is an Arab and Muslim country," Nugali said.

Also reported by local news organizations to be attending are President Fuad Masum of Iraq, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan.

Not on the guest list are Iran, the Saudis' regional nemesis, and Syria, whose president, Bashar Assad, is at war with rebels who have received support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries that will be in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has long vied to be the Islamic world's center of influence. The kingdom hosts millions of Muslim pilgrims annually at holy sites in Mecca and Medina -- a fact that Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, noted when announcing Trump's decision to visit Saudi Arabia first.

The kingdom's control of the holy sites has been criticized by Muslims around the world. In 2015, two major accidents there killed several thousand pilgrims, including at least 2,400 people in a crush and stampede of crowds.

'Common interests'

Though the Saudi government is framing Trump's visit around a theme of friendship with Washington, prominent Saudis say it boils down to strategic interests.

"President Trump will not come to Riyadh because he loves us. The Gulf and Muslim leaders will not come to Riyadh because they love him," writer Ziad al-Drees wrote in the pan-Arabic newspaper al-Hayat.

"The common interests of these international leaders are what bring them together in Riyadh," he said, including issues ranging from terrorism to rekindling U.S. ties post-Obama.

Saudi Arabia has welcomed Trump's hard rhetoric on Iran, which contrasts with the outreach that culminated in the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Tehran. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed said earlier this month that Obama "wasted many significant opportunities" in Syria.

The Sunni-ruled kingdom views Shiite-ruled Iran's influence in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq as a danger to its security. Prince Mohammed has ruled out any dialogue with Iran, framing the tensions in sectarian terms and accusing Iran of trying to "control the Islamic world."

Turki Aldakhil, who runs the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel, wrote that Trump's visit restores "what Obama ruined." He described Trump's past criticisms of Saudi Arabia and his talk of a Muslim ban as electoral propaganda that has "nothing to do with his effective political programs."

Saudi Arabia wants to seize on Trump's visit to show itself as an earnest partner in the war on terror. Among the weekend events are a counterterrorism forum and the opening of a center to "fight radical thought."

With all eyes on Trump's visit, the kingdom will attempt to draw attention to a softer side rarely seen. A parallel art exhibition focuses on modern Saudi art, and a Twitter forum will engage young Saudis on how to "utilize social media networks to counter extremism and terrorism." Trump is scheduled to address the Twitter event, where Fox's Baier will also be a speaker.

Twitter is wildly popular among Saudis and is rife with criticisms of the government, which has cracked down on users who openly criticize the royal family or religious establishment.

In Trump, however, many Saudis see a decisive, business-focused leader, who they say shares their goals in the region.

They applauded his military strike on a Syrian air base after Assad's forces used chemical weapons, and they have noted his tough talk on Iran. They hope he will increase support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen against rebels aligned with Iran. And they see a role for U.S. investment in efforts to shift the Saudi economy from its dependence on oil.

"This administration is very clear, not just with Saudi Arabia but also with Turkey and other traditional allies, that the idea is to double down on existing relationships and to put allies first," said Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Saudi political analyst and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a policy research organization.

While Saudi Arabia's restrictions on freedom and ban on women driving often grab headlines, Trump is not expected to make human-rights concerns a centerpiece of his talks with Saudi royals Saturday. Instead, the focus will be on securing more multibillion-dollar military deals, advancing economic ties and isolating Iran, according to analysts.

Tillerson said other governments were especially looking for greater U.S. leadership in the war on terrorism. He said the Trump administration will retake "our role as convener and facilitator."

He said Trump's message will be that the battle is not one of religion or culture but "good versus evil."

"We are all in this together," he said.

Saudi Arabia, which wants Trump to do more to assist in its war in Yemen and help in the fight to oust Assad, has arranged separate talks between Trump and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.

All are members of the U.S. coalition striking Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, as well as among the world's top energy producers and biggest military spenders. The largest U.S. military base in the Middle East is in Qatar, and Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which frequently has tense encounters with Iran's navy in the Persian Gulf.

Rounding out the weekend's events is a U.S.-Saudi business forum with CEOs from companies like GE and Dow Chemical, as well as Saudi Arabia's state-run oil company Aramco. Partnership agreements in energy and technology will likely be signed.

Information for this article was contributed by Aya Batrawy of The Associated Press; by Tracy Wilkinson of Tribune News Service; and by Ben Hubbard of The New York Times.

A Section on 05/19/2017

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