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Trump To Meet Arab Leaders During Saudi Arabia Visit


President Trump is departing later today for his first overseas trip as president. And his first stop is Saudi Arabia. It is a U.S. ally run by a monarchy and entangled in regional conflicts. Trump will spend two nights there and use the time to meet with leaders from around the Arab and Muslim world. NPR's Jane Arraf is in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and joins us. Good morning, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So much of the interest here, it sounds like the Saudis are really offering President Trump a warm welcome.

ARRAF: Yeah, that's a bit of an understatement, more like the start of a love affair. They're calling this historic. It's actually the biggest event they've ever attempted to pull off. So, they've invited 50 heads of state, and 37 of them are expected to come. And it's all designed to showcase Saudi Arabia as this regional powerhouse. But they're thrilled, of course, that the president chose Riyadh as his first foreign visit. And they're very proud of their tradition of hospitality.

So, they'll be hosting a very posh dinner for him. They'll be showing him a museum that shows off the history of this very young country. And the highlight will be, though, a speech by President Trump that's designed to show that despite a lot of things he's said, he actually isn't anti-Islam.

GREENE: Well, you mention a lot of things he's said. I mean, during the campaign, President Trump talked so much about, you know, some sort of ban on many Muslims entering the country. His campaign website at one point even said, you know, pledging to prevent Muslim immigration. The Saudis, do they genuinely believe that he is OK with Islam? Or is part of this, you know, a show to demonstrate themselves as a regional powerhouse?

ARRAF: Well, they say that they believe he's OK with Islam, and that's the interesting thing. I spoke with the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir about that. And he told us that what a candidate says on the campaign trail and what he does are two different things. So he says, at the end of the day, Donald Trump is a pragmatic businessman at heart. Let's listen to what he told us.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: I don't subscribe to the notion that Donald Trump is anti-Muslim. Donald Trump was born wealthy. Donald Trump went to great schools. Donald Trump lives and grew up in one of the world's most diverse cities. Donald Trump is a practical, pragmatic businessman who knows that if he wants to get his projects approved, he has to talk to all of his neighbors, irrespective of color, creed or religion.

ARRAF: So the Saudis as well, of course, are very pragmatic too. They have shared interests - security and business, lots of business. One of the things they're expected to do here is announce a new multibillion-dollar deal for Saudi Arabia to buy more U.S. arms.

GREENE: But the focus of these meetings, Jane - right? - is supposed to be fighting terrorism. What exactly does that mean when you're in Saudi Arabia?

ARRAF: So when - if you talk to Saudi and the rest of the Gulf, which of course are Sunni Arab, they say fighting terrorism is almost exclusively about Iran. I asked the Saudi foreign minister how they view what they see as the Iranian threat versus the threat from ISIS and other groups. And the ISIS ideology actually comes out of the Arab world and particularly the Gulf states.

So the foreign minister said Iran is by far the bigger threat. And in fact, he accuses Iran of harboring and fostering ISIS. So part of the reason that Saudi Arabia and other countries here are relieved that Trump is in power is that they believe he'll be just as tough on Iran.

GREENE: OK. It will be interesting to follow as this trip begins. NPR's Jane Arraf in Riyadh. Thanks, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.