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Donald Trump’s already complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia

President Trump speaks on the phone with the King Salman of Saudi Arabia from the Oval Office in Washington on Jan. 29. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Just days after he signed an executive order that critics say unfairly targets Muslims, President Trump spoke on the phone with the leader of a country that is not only the home of Islam's most sacred sites, but also widely accused of abetting some of the religion's worst extremism: Saudi Arabia.

According to a White House statement, Trump spoke with the Saudi King Salman on Sunday evening. A separate statement from the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) confirming the call was published Monday morning.

Neither account of the call suggested that the two men had discussed Trump's executive order, signed Friday, which had blocked citizens of a number of Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States. Instead, the accounts suggested that the pair discussed a variety of other subjects, including the war in Syria and the economic relationship between the two countries.

“The views of the two leaders were identical on the files that were discussed during the call,” SPA reported.

During his campaign for the 2016 election, Trump had repeatedly suggested that all Muslim foreigners needed to be blocked from entry to the United States due to the threat of extremism and terrorism. Some counterterrorism experts have suggested that he conflates mainstream Islam with extremism, helping aid the rhetoric of groups like the Islamic State that seek to drive a wedge between the Islamic world and the West.

While Saudi Arabia was not included on the list of countries from which immigration was restricted, almost all of its 28 million-strong population are Muslim. The prophet Muhammad was born and died in what is now Saudi Arabia, and the country is home to some of the most important sites in Islam, including the two holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Millions of Muslims make pilgrimages to these sites every year, and Salman's official title is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.”

Fahad Nazer, a political consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said that despite Saudi Arabia's prominent role in the Islamic world, Salman would be unlikely to comment on a policy that did not directly affect it. “Since the [Executive Orders] did not include Saudi Arabia and are therefore not likely to impact its citizens traveling to the United States, it is unlikely that officials would comment on it one way or another,” Nazer said, noting that he was not speaking on the embassy's behalf.

Some observers have expressed surprise, however, that Saudi Arabia was not mentioned in Trump's executive order. Saudi Arabia is often accused of fomenting the very same extremism that Trump claims to be targeting. For decades, a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism has held sway among the country's top clerics, and the ruling al-Saud dynasty, who derive much of their legitimacy from these clerics, have long avoided confronting it.

In contrast to the countries included in Trump's executive order, Saudi citizens have been directly linked to terrorist attacks on U.S. soil numerous times. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who committed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks called the country home, while the al-Qaeda founder and mastermind behind that attack, Osama bin Laden, was born into one of the kingdom's most prominent and wealthy families. Saudi citizens also make up a considerable number of the Islamic State's foreign fighters in Syria.

The White House has said that its list of countries facing new restrictions was based upon a prior decision made under the Obama administration. But notably, the list also did not include any country where Trump has business interests.

At one point, the Trump Organization incorporated several limited liability companies in preparation for an attempt to build a hotel in Saudi Arabia, but the company canceled these corporations in December, which suggests that the project is no longer moving forward. Also not included on the list was the United Arab Emirates, where Trump has licensed his name to a Dubai golf resort and other developments. Trump also spoke with Abu Dhabi's crown prince Sunday.

A friendly Trump relationship with Saudi Arabia would be far from unusual for a U.S. president. Since the end of World War II, Riyadh has been one of the strongest U.S. allies in the Middle East. During the Obama administration, however, that relationship suffered, with many Saudis feeling that the U.S. had turned toward the country's greatest geopolitical rival, the Shia-majority Iran.

In official statements, the Saudi government has spoken positively about future of U.S.-Saudi relations under Trump.

“We are very, very optimistic about the Trump administration,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir said during a news conference in Riyadh last week. “And on working closely with it to deal with the many challenges, not only in our region but in the world.”

Nazer said that he understood Sunday's phone call had been scheduled. “I think the readouts that were issued by both sides are instructive, as they stressed the strong convergence between the two nations on a range of issues,” Nazer said.

Notably, Trump has repeatedly suggested that he views Iran as a major threat. The White House's statement on the call with Salman suggested that the two men had discussed the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has suggested he would cancel or renegotiate. According to the White House's statement, Trump and Salman also discussed the idea of building “safe zones” in Syria — a concept which Trump had previously said he would force Gulf states to pay for, according to the White House.

Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser with Washington-based Gulf State Analytics, noted that it was “ironic” that the custodian of the two mosques wouldn't publicly discuss an immigration ban that appeared not only to target Muslims, but also included the key Saudi allies Yemen and Sudan. However, Karasik noted that Saudi Arabia's considerable economic problems at the moment meant it needed to keep on the new president's good side.

“The logic behind not talking about the Muslim immigration ban is based simply on the fact that Saudi Arabia needs U.S. support for Vision 2030,” Karasik added, referring to the kingdom's ambitious plan to modernize its economy and wean itself off oil money.

For Saudi Arabia, there is also the threat that it could soon face Trump's wrath too. During an interview with NBC News' “Meet The Press” on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus suggested that “perhaps other countries need to be added” to Trump's executive order list.

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