Trump starts foreign tour in Saudi as scandals mount at home

2017-05-20 09:50
US President Donald Trump arrives at the Royal Terminal of King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. (Evan Vucci, AP)

US President Donald Trump arrives at the Royal Terminal of King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. (Evan Vucci, AP)

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Riyadh - US President Donald Trump landed in Saudi Arabia on Saturday for the start of an eight-day foreign tour, taking his first steps on the world stage as scandals mount at home.

Trump can expect a warm welcome in Saudi Arabia where he is to meet King Salman and other senior royals - in sharp contrast to Washington where pressure is building over his team's alleged links to Moscow.

Air Force One had barely taken off when it was announced that James Comey, the former FBI chief fired by Trump, had agreed to testify publicly about Russian interference in the US elections.

Reports also emerged that Trump had called Comey "a nut job" and that the FBI had identified a senior White House official as a "significant person of interest" in its probe of Russian meddling.

A red carpet was rolled out and staircase rolled up to Air Force One after it landed at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh shortly before 09:50 (06:50 GMT).

Trump and his wife Melania, who dressed conservatively in black but did not cover her hair, walked side-by-side to the tarmac where they both shook hands with Saudi King Salman.

Trump is to hold talks with King Salman and the kingdom's two powerful crown princes later on Saturday, before giving a speech on Islam to leaders of Muslim countries on Sunday.

For Riyadh the visit is an opportunity to rebuild ties with a key ally, which were strained under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama who Sunni Arab Gulf states suspected of a tilt towards their Shiite regional rival Iran.

That, together with a more muted focus on human rights and the likely announcement of new arms deals, should please Washington's traditional Sunni Gulf allies.

"He's going to be tougher on Iran," said Philip Gordon, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "He's not going to lecture them on democracy and human rights."

Sunday's speech to dozens of Muslim leaders has been touted as a major event - along the lines of a landmark address to the Islamic world given by Obama in Cairo in 2009.

The speech will be especially sensitive given tensions sparked by the Trump administration's attempted travel ban targeting several Muslim majority nations and accusations of anti-Islamic rhetoric on the campaign trail.

"I'll speak with Muslim leaders and challenge them to fight hatred and extremism, and embrace a peaceful future for their faith," Trump said ahead of his visit.

Trump wants Gulf states in particular to do more to tackle extremists such as the Islamic State jihadist group.

Before departing, the president tweeted he would be "strongly protecting American interests" on his marathon eight-day trip to the Middle East and Europe.

Read more on:    donald trump  |  saudi arabia  |  us

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