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What Saudi Leaders Think Of President Trump

May 19, 2017
Originally published on May 19, 2017 7:45 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. And we're going to see if the situation in Syria comes up as President Trump heads off on his first overseas trip as president. His first stop is Saudi Arabia. After a rocky week in Washington, NPR's Tamara Keith reports that Trump is likely to get a friendly reception when he lands in Riyadh.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Ilan Goldenberg is just back from a trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And following his meetings with high-level government officials, he had this takeaway.

ILAN GOLDENBERG: Well, actually, I think they were very optimistic about President Trump.

KEITH: Goldenberg is with the Center for New American Security.

GOLDENBERG: It's a little surprising if you think about some of the things he said during the campaign, especially about Saudi Arabia, the fact that in his view they're freeloading. He even tweeted about this.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have military bases and we rent - we pay rent to Saudi Arabia to protect them.

(BOOING)

TRUMP: No, no, think of it. Think of it. Think of the stupidity.

KEITH: That was then-candidate Trump at a rally in Green Bay, Wisc., last August. In a debate, he blasted Hillary Clinton because the Clinton Foundation had taken money from Saudi Arabia. But it was as much a criticism of the country.

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TRUMP: These are people that push gays off business - off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly. And yet, you take their money.

KEITH: And yet, Middle East experts say Trump will be greeted warmly in Saudi Arabia. Shadi Hamid with the Brookings Institution wrote the book "Islamic Exceptionalism."

SHADI HAMID: For the Saudis, anyone is better than Barack Obama. That was really a low point from their perspective.

KEITH: With the Iran nuclear deal being the lowest. Obama never really developed a rapport with Arab leaders, Hamid says, and worse, he was negotiating with Iran.

HAMID: So even if they have some concerns about Trump and his unpredictability, they still see him as an improvement. And they're enthusiastic in part because of Trump's strong rhetoric against Iran.

KEITH: But there are other reasons leaders in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have an affinity for the new American president, says Hamid.

HAMID: Trump has a strongman persona and that endears him to autocratic leaders in the Middle East. They never liked that Obama would bring up human rights concerns in their meetings. They don't have to worry about that as much with President Trump, who is not prioritizing human rights or democracy at all.

KEITH: Trump's tendency to run the government like a family business with a close circle of advisers, his daughter and son-in-law in key roles, isn't really seen as a negative in a part of the world run by extended families and monarchies, says Gerry Gerry Feierstein, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

GERRY FEIERSTEIN: You know, for them, Donald Trump is a very understandable and relatable individual. I mean, he's a - he's a sympathetic character. He behaves the same way they behave.

KEITH: Trump believes in personal diplomacy and building relationships, and he's transactional - all things they value. And about Trump's travel ban executive order, seen by critics as nothing more than a Muslim ban, Feierstein says it has quite possibly been better received among Arab leaders than in the United States.

FEIERSTEIN: The Emirates and the Saudis and the Egyptians and others have said, well, this is a homeland security issue for the Americans, and we understand that, and we're not going to be too fussed about it.

KEITH: Now, this isn't to say that Trump is universally popular among the citizens of these countries, but he is unlikely to face protests during his time in Saudi Arabia because that sort of public show of dissent simply isn't allowed. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.