Expectations for President Trump’s first trip abroad were not very high, but so far, it appears he’s exceeded them. Trump left Saudi Arabia on Sunday without starting a diplomatic incident, and while an odd photo of the president gripping a glowing orb sparked a new meme, there’s actually a reasonable explanation. (If you can accept that someone thought it was a good idea for world leaders to mark the opening of Riyadh’s Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology by placing their hands on a globe “in a gesture of solidarity.”)
Still, members of the Trump administration managed to generate plenty of controversies during their weekend in Saudi Arabia, and many aspects of the trip were downright bizarre. Here’s a few of the weirdest elements that don’t involve world leaders reenacting a scene from Indiana Jones.
Trump's Warm Welcome in a Nation He Said Was Behind 9/11
It would be odd for any president to make Saudi Arabia their first foreign destination. While recent presidents have warmed up with a jaunt to Canada or Mexico, Trump opted for a whirlwind tour of the religious centers for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. To make matters worse, during the campaign Trump said Saudi Arabia wants “women as slaves and to kill gays,” and suggested on more than one occasion that they were behind the 9/11 attacks (which is not totally off the mark).
Yet Trump got a particularly warm welcome in the kingdom on Saturday. American flags and billboards featuring Trump tweets appeared around Riyadh, and King Salman greeted the president on the tarmac as he exited Air Force One. President Obama got a far chillier reception last year.
This probably isn’t how Trump’s base pictures U.S.-Saudi relations when they heard their candidate say the Saudis “kill women and treat women horribly.” But apparently, as president, Trump prioritizes isolating Iran and pleasing strongman-type leaders over advocating for Iranian women. As for the Saudis, New York’s Eric Levitz explained that it’s not in their best interest to hold a grudge:
Once you get past his theories about 9/11 and the nature of Islam, Trump is close to the ideal American leader, from the Saudi perspective. The president has evinced more respect for dictatorial strength than human rights; views foreign policy in transactional terms; places a premium on loyalty; surrounds himself with fanatically anti-Tehran generals; and appears deeply susceptible to manipulation through flattery.
Trump's Muted Speech on Islam
Having a president repeatedly accused of Islamophobia deliver a speech on Islam before representatives of more than 50 Muslim countries sounded like a comically bad idea from the start. Then last week, we learned that it would be penned Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller, who has his own history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and who drafted the original “Muslim ban” that was struck down by the courts.
In a shocking turnaround during his speech on Sunday, Trump noted that Muslims are the most frequent targets of terror groups like ISIS, and said the West is not engaged in a “clash of civilizations” with the Muslim world. “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” he said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between Good and Evil.”
Though he attacked President Obama and Hillary Clinton for refusing to use the term “radical Islamic extremism,” Trump never uttered the full phrase during his speech. Sunday on ABC’s This Week, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster made the case against using the term, and suggested Trump wouldn’t.
Trump’s prepared remarks said Arab leaders must confront the crisis of “Islamist extremism,” but he went off-script there, saying, “Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.”
While there were dashes of more Trumpian rhetoric, as New York’s Jesse Singal points out, much of Trump’s speech could have come from presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama, who both took pains to emphasize that the U.S. was not at war with Islam. The more orthodox members of Trump’s foreign-policy team, like McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, still subscribe to that view, and, Singal says, “Overall it’s hard to read Trump’s speech and not view it as a forceful rebuke to the worldview advanced by Miller and Bannon” (even if Miller wrote it).
Trump's Embrace of Saudi Culture
Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. ally, yet they persecute peaceful dissidents, women, LGBT people, and religious minorities. They’re also currently using U.S. planes and weapons to help create a famine in Yemen. Presidents dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt have ignored Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its own people to further U.S. interests, but as the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum notes, “Until now American presidents made it clear that, while we have to deal with Saudi leaders, we don’t endorse their culture.”
Trump officials made little effort to signal their reservations with the Saudis. In fact, Trump said during his speech on Sunday, “We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”
The president and his cabinet officials awkwardly participated in an all-male sword dance (as George W. Bush did).
During President Obama’s first trip to Saudi Arabia he sparked a massive controversy when he appeared to bow to King Abdullah (though his predecessors had bowed to other world leaders). Trump complained about this repeatedly over the years:
On Saturday, Trump pulled this maneuver, which some interpreted as a bow:
It’s possible that trolling Obama, not pleasing his Saudi hosts, was Trump’s primary goal. Melania and Ivanka Trump opted not to wear a head scarf, breaking the kingdom’s dress code. This isn’t uncommon for foreign women visiting Saudi Arabia, but some were incensed when Michelle Obama did it:
Ivanka and Melania Trump Praise Saudi Women's "Empowerment"
Ivanka Trump’s book Women Who Work was panned as out-of-touch by many working women in America, so imagine how awkward it was when she presented an only slightly modified version of that message at a round table with Saudi women.
“In every country, including the United States, women and girls face challenges,” Trump said. “Saudi Arabia’s progress, especially in recent years, is very encouraging,” she continued, “but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
The 15 women Ivanka met were highly educated professionals, but critics said she missed an opportunity to highlight the real issues facing women there. “All the women that Ivanka Trump met have a guardian,” Aziza al-Yousef, a 58-year-old Saudi activist, told the Post.
“All these achievements depend on whether you’re lucky to be born in a family where your guardian will be understanding, will help you,” Yousef said. “If Ivanka is interested in women empowerment and human rights, she should see activists, and not just officials.”
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did announce during the trip that they would donate $100 million to a World Bank fund for female entrepreneurs, which Ivanka came up with. The donation was not without controversy, however, as President Trump frequently attacked the Clinton Foundation for accepting money from oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the First Lady praised the Saudis for making advances in “the empowerment of women.”
Tillerson Appears Before Foreign Press, Not Americans
Rex Tillerson made American reporters feel at home by continuing to snub them overseas. The secretary of State held a press conference with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, and only the foreign press was invited.
State Department spokesperson R.C. Hammond was more conciliatory than usual, explaining that Tillerson received the invitation at the last minute. “Under different circumstances, U.S. media would have been alerted,” Hammond said. “Steps were immediately taken to ensure a transcript could be produced and distributed to reporters. Ideally, members of the U.S. press corps should have had the option to attend the press conference and ask questions.”
Israeli journalists accused Saudi Arabia of a far less innocent snub. Orly Azoulay, Gil Tamary, and Dan Raviv, who are all U.S. citizens covering Trump for Israeli outlets, said the kingdom denied their visas.
“Everyone is saying that the Saudis are changing, but when a reporter for an Israeli outlet wants to join the U.S. president’s press corps, he is not allowed on the plane,” Tamary said.
Trump Admits He's Already Tired
When asked why he ad-libbed the line “Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds,” an administration official said President Trump deviated from his prepared remarks because he’s tired:
Most presidents wouldn’t want their staff to admit that at the start of an eight-day foreign trip, but it’s particularly unfortunate considering how Trump made a huge issue out of Hillary Clinton’s stamina during the campaign. And of course, since there’s a Trump tweet for every occasion, he also mocked Obama for being too sluggish to carry out his presidential duties in 2014.