RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Amid rare pageantry in this deeply conservative Muslim nation, President Trump will be treated as visiting royalty.
“It’s like a dream come true for the Saudis,” Mohammad Al Suwayed, a financial analyst and strategic adviser to the Saudi Transport Ministry, said of the visit. “Trump is a businessman. He will always do the right thing when it comes to the relationship between the Saudis and the United States.”
“Under President Obama, there was a sense of betrayal,” said Somayya Jabarti, editor of the Saudi Gazette newspaper. “Saudis felt like the United States was someone we’ve known all our lives, and suddenly they were unrecognizable. Under Trump, this could be a potential era of restoration of relations.”
Beyond official talks with King Salman and his deputies, there will be royal receptions and dinner at the Murabba Palace, where the kingdom’s founder received kings and heads of state. A delegation of top American business leaders will hold separate meetings with Saudi counterparts and officials.
The New York Cosmos play an exhibition match here Saturday against the Saudi team al Hilal. American singer Toby Keith, a Trump favorite who sang at the president’s inaugural celebration, will give a concert in Riyadh on Saturday night. Admission is open to men only.
In interviews in this capital city and in the Red Sea port of Jiddah, Saudis said Trump arrives to tremendous goodwill, partly because of his early foreign policy moves in the region, but largely because he is not Barack Obama, whose policies were deeply unpopular here.
Saudis had high expectations of Obama following his 2009 speech in Cairo calling for a “new beginning” with the Muslim world. But that quickly soured when Obama responded positively to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that the Saudi monarchy regarded as threatening.
Ties worsened because of Obama’s reluctance to become involved in the Syrian civil war against President Bashar al-
Assad. The Syrian leader is backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival for regional power. The last straw came with Obama’s secret negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear weapons program.
“Obama said all the right things during the first few months of his presidency, and then he ended up doing all the wrong things,” said Faisal J. Abbas, editor of the Arab News. “With Trump, it was the opposite. There were a lot of questions raised about his rhetoric in the campaign, but there has been a lot of support for his decisions.”
Trump delighted Saudis by bombing a Syrian airfield last month and began more aggressively supporting the Saudi-led military campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“You should have seen the kind of sentiment when he actually delivered the strike on Syria,” Abbas said. “Trump was almost kind of a national hero across the region.”
Trump’s emerging policies seem to align with those of Salman and his rising-star son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31, who met with Trump at the White House in March. In a remarkable hour-long television interview this month, Prince Mohammed said he thought that Iran ultimately wanted to take control of the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
“We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Instead we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia. ”
But although the ruling royals say they are untroubled by what one called Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric and proposed travel ban, some younger Saudis have expressed unease.
In a recent poll of people ages 18 to 24 across the region conducted by ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab, 83 percent of respondents said they viewed Trump unfavorably, and 84 percent of Saudi youth said he was anti-Muslim.
“He has to explain his comments to us,” said Khaled Al Maeena, a prominent Saudi commentator and social critic. “The people have a long memory. I personally would like him to say that it was campaign rhetoric and now he has met our people and he sees they are not the enemy.”
He said that Trump is less popular than many Saudis are willing to say publicly.
At the Kingdom Mall in Riyadh, cousins Taghreed Abdullah, 25, and Sara Sultan were celebrating Sultan’s 24th birthday Monday with cake and coffee in the food court. They said that they were offended by Trump’s anti-Muslim language and that it has changed the way they feel about the United States.
“We have never been to America, and we were going to take a trip to L.A. this summer,” Sultan said. “But we don’t want to be discriminated against, so we are going to Greece instead.”
In a coffee shop across the mall, Taif Al Shamary, 19, said Trump’s language about Muslims “insulted” her. “I’ll never forgive him,” she said. “Even if he changes his words now that he’s the president, I won’t believe him. He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t believe it.”
Her friend Gharam Saad, 23, was more conciliatory: “He said those things just to get elected. Now that he’s the president, he’s improved. He’s going to do good things for our country.”
Others agreed that Trump’s anti-Muslim comments were campaign rhetoric they were willing to overlook, as long as his polices continue to align with Saudi Arabia’s.
“When he talked about banning Muslims, people were a little bit scared,” said Waleed Al Sudairy, professor of political science at King Abdulaziz University in Jiddah. “But when he bombed Syria, the mood changed. His language bothered me, but I pay more attention to his actions.”