TAORMINA, Italy — As more recent stops on his nine-day overseas journey yielded less love, President Trump continued to bask in the glow from his earlier visit to Saudi Arabia — the site of what he has called his “historic” and “unprecedented” meeting with Arab and Muslim leaders.
“People have said there has really never been anything even close in history,” Trump said days later on the West Bank. In Israel, he talked up the Saudi stop as a harbinger of victory over terrorism and of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In an otherwise grating speech Thursday in Brussels — where he chastised NATO leaders for skimping on defense spending — Trump recalled his “historic” Riyadh meeting and spoke movingly of Saudi King Salman as “a wise man.”
The contrast between Trump’s respectful and smiling demeanor during two days in Riyadh, where he danced a traditional sword dance and was served endless cups of cardamom-laced coffee, and his solitary scowls during several hours spent in Brussels among America’s traditionally closest allies, was striking. During his last stop before returning home late Saturday, here in Sicily for a meeting with leaders of the Group of Seven world economic powers, he has also been gently lectured on climate change.
But how history ultimately remembers the Saudi event may depend on the extent to which deals struck and promises made are kept. An announced $110 billion arms agreement with Saudi Arabia would be the largest U.S. weapons sale ever, but many of its components were negotiated by previous administrations, Congress may balk at the transfers and the Saudis are currently operating on an unusually tight budget.
Additional Saudi investments — totaling $270 billion or more than $300 billion, according to various administration pronouncements — so far amount largely to statements of intent that remain to be negotiated, despite Trump’s claim that “thousands” of U.S. jobs were won.
Although more than 40 leaders of Muslim-majority countries attended a Sunday meeting with Trump, the focus in Riyadh was on the Persian Gulf’s importance as a U.S. partner and bulwark against terrorism during two days of bilateral negotiations with Saudi Arabia and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council. The council also includes the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman.
A GCC communique signed with the United States on Sunday was similar to accords in recent years signed by the Obama administration, one at a U.S.-GCC summit at Camp David in 2015 and another a year later in Riyadh. They pledged to intensify efforts against terrorism and terror financing, reviewed the activities of working groups established in years past, agreed to help achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace and condemned Iran for both terrorism and interference in other nations.
“The first part entirely builds on the Obama initiatives, very explicitly,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat with long experience in the region under Republican and Democratic administrations. “The new part is the bashing of Iran over Bahrain” and its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Obama had put weapons shipments to Bahrain on hold, charging the ruling monarchy with oppression against political opponents that it says are instigated by Iran. Trump has lifted the hold. This week, days after he left Riyadh, Bahraini security forces clashed with what they said was a violent protest march — opponents said it was a peaceful prayer group — killing five demonstrators. Opposition leaders charged that Trump had given the government a “green light.”
The Trump administration has also given full support to Saudi insistence that the rebellion in neighboring Yemen is an Iranian operation. Obama had raised questions about the extent of Iranian support and withheld the shipment of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, which it charged with indiscriminate bombing of civilians as part of a two-year-old intervention in Yemen. Trump has said he would lift the ban on the missiles, the price of which is included in the new arms deal.
The communique also voices support for an Islamic military alliance force announced by Saudi Arabia several years ago that has gained little traction since then. There was no public announcement of a new “Arab NATO” that some administration officials had said was in the works.
Senior administration officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the communique also includes a new commitment by the Gulf states to charge and prosecute individuals in their countries who finance terrorists, although the document itself does not specify that.
Asked about the discrepancy, one senior official later said in an email that the document was “an umbrella statement that allowed flexibility to hold nations accountable for the financing [from] any institutions or individuals from within who fund terrorist groups in any way.”
In exchange, Trump abandoned what the Arabs considered Obama’s hectoring over human rights and democracy and perceived tilt toward Iran. Speaking to the group, Trump denounced Tehran as the cause of virtually all the region’s ills. After denouncing the terrorism of the Sunni groups Islamic State and al-Qaeda — in many respects based on an extreme version of Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam — he segued smoothly to Shiite Iran, “a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region.”
“What’s different, and certainly from a Saudi perspective what’s very welcome, is an American attitude that’s very open and not condescending. A meeting of equals,” said Karen E. Young, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “That’s what the Gulf states really crave — recognition as equals on the international stage and that their governments are legitimate. Trump gave them that, and that makes it historic in terms of American recognition.”
“We get very little,” added Young, a specialist in political economy in the region. “Contracts, which in the defense field were moving forward anyway.”
In an article on the website “War on the Rocks,” David Des Roches, who served in various White House and Pentagon positions from 1996 to 2010, called the defense sales “more the ‘art of the packaging’ than the ‘art of the deal.’ ”
Congressional approval was already given during the Obama administration for $23.7 billion of the reported $110 billion sale, wrote Des Roches, now an associate professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University.
“The rest of the equipment Trump has offered,” as much as $86 billion, “could be denied by Congress,” he wrote. He noted in particular the most expensive item on the list: the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system, which costs $13 billion for seven batteries and about $3.5 billion for upgraded and new Bradley fighting vehicles.
“In my experience, working on the [previous] $60 billion Saudi F-15 and Saudi National Guard aviation sales, qualitative military edge was the most frequently raised congressional concern,” Des Roches wrote, referring to guarantees to Israel — repeated by Trump during his visit there — that its military edge will be preserved.
“Atmospherically, the visit to Saudi Arabia was very positive,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, a retired Foreign Service officer who is director for Gulf affairs at Washington’s Middle East Institute. Gulf and Arab leaders, he said, “appreciated the effort,” particularly in light of Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric. “The strong language on Iran was welcome and reassuring.”
“In terms of specifics, do we see the outline of a new policy? I don’t,” he said. “In terms of understanding more today about where this administration intends to go on some of these issues, I don’t think you know anything more.”
“A lot of this stuff is ephemeral,” Feierstein said. “Who knows if it’s ever going to happen or not?”