Saudis Made Trump’s Visit an Extravaganza. They’re Unlikely to for Biden’s.


When President Donald J. Trump chose Saudi Arabia in 2017 for the first overseas trip of his presidency, the Saudis were so overjoyed that they turned his visit into a pro-American extravaganza.

They projected giant American and Saudi flags on the facade of a luxury hotel. They put Mr. Trump up in a palace. American flags were hung on lampposts along strips of highway.

Mr. Biden’s visit to the kingdom on Friday evening, his first after nearly two years in office, is bound to be less jubilant, not least because he vowed during his election campaign to treat Saudi Arabia like a “pariah” for its human rights violations, bruising the feelings of a longtime American partner.

As president, Mr. Biden has continued to criticize the kingdom’s human rights record, fueling tensions with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler. The murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018 has been a notable point of contention.

The Saudis have also come to doubt the administration’s commitment to their security, particularly from attacks launched by Iran and its proxies in Yemen. That sentiment contributed to their decision not to immediately join Washington’s efforts to isolate Russia after its invasion of Ukraine or increase oil production to help bring down oil prices.

None of those issues clouded Mr. Trump’s visit. The Saudis fully embraced him from the start, hoping to have warmer ties with him than with President Barack Obama. They expanded his visit into a summit of Islamic nations attended by heads of state and other top officials from dozens of countries.

A transformation of the capital, Riyadh, showcased a Saudi fondness for American culture. The Saudi Harley-Davidson club held a booze-free biker rally. The country singer Toby Keith performed for a full house of Saudi fans, all of them men.

Perhaps the best-known image of that trip came out of a visit to a center for countering extremism, where Mr. Trump, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt laid their hands on a glowing orb. Photos of that moment spawned numerous memes.

The visit concluded with Mr. Trump and other senior officials joining King Salman and the rest of his Saudi hosts in a traditional sword dance.

The attention lavished on Mr. Trump laid the groundwork for the cozy ties the Saudis were seeking, an investment that paid off for the kingdom throughout Mr. Trump’s presidency.

When Saudi Arabia and some of its Arab neighbors imposed a blockade on Qatar, Mr. Trump initially praised the move, although he later worked to end the rift. He lifted restrictions on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, despite the long record of civilians being killed in Saudi bombings in Yemen. And Mr. Trump became Prince Mohammed’s most ardent defender in Washington after the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, arguing that arms sales to the kingdom gave Americans jobs that should not be jeopardized because of human rights.

Prince Mohammed also grew close to Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, communicating with him directly via WhatsApp and sometimes meeting with him out of earshot of State Department note takers, leaving other branches of the government in the dark about what they discussed.

That relationship, too, appears to have paid dividends, this time for Mr. Kushner. Six months after leaving the White House, he secured a $2 billion investment from Saudi Arabia for his new private equity fund.



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