By Yara Bayoumy and Katie Paul
WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) – When U.S. President Donald Trump meets Saudi princes in Riyadh on Saturday, he can expect a warmer welcome than the one given a year ago to his predecessor Barack Obama, who Riyadh considered soft on arch foe Iran and cool toward a bilateral relationship that is a mainstay of the Middle East’s security balance.
Beneath the pomp, Riyadh will be looking for assurances that the Trump administration will continue its notably harsher tone toward Iran and keep up pressure, through both rhetoric and action, to stop what Saudi Arabia sees as Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the region.
The U.S.-Saudi alliance has experienced turbulence since Riyadh faulted what it saw as Obama’s withdrawal from the region, a perceived tilt toward Iran since the 2011 Arab uprisings and a lack of direct action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally.
Saudi Arabia will also want to showcase high-profile investment deals with American companies to show progress on its ambitious “Vision 2030” economic and social reform agenda, while Washington says U.S. arms sales arms worth tens of billions of dollars are in the pipeline.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia is the first stop on his maiden international trip since taking office in January. U.S. and Saudi officials are eager to highlight the powerful symbolism of an American president choosing to visit the birthplace of Islam as his first stop rather than to neighbors Canada or Mexico.
Besides meeting with Saudi officials, Trump will also meet with leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and have lunch with leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries.
Critics have accused Trump of being anti-Muslim after he issued a ban, now blocked by U.S. courts, on entry into the United States by citizens of several Muslim-majority countries, citing national security concerns.
U.S. public opinion of Saudi Arabia has never fully recovered since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. The U.S. Congress last year passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a law permitting lawsuits holding Saudi Arabia responsible for the attacks. The Saudi government has long denied involvement.