Trump visits Saudi Arabia amid controversy at home

US president agrees €98bn deal with Riyadh as fallout continues over Comey firing

US president Donald Trump sealed a $110 billion (about €98 billion) arms deal with Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on Saturday on his maiden foreign trip, amid continued fallout at home over his firing of former FBI director James Comey.

The arms deal, plus other investments that US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said could total up to $350 billion, was the central achievement of Mr Trump’s first day in Riyadh, his first stop on a nine-day journey through the Middle East and Europe.

Speaking to journalists after a ceremony to exchange agreements, Mr Trump said it was a “tremendous day” and expressed his thanks to Saudi Arabia.

“Tremendous investments in . . . the US, and our military community is very happy,” he said.

“Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the US and jobs, jobs, jobs. So I would like to thank all of the people of Saudi Arabia.”

But the turmoil back home consumed the headlines and cast a long shadow over Mr Trump’s first foreign trip as president.

His firing of Mr Comey and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his 2016 election campaign's ties to Russia have raised the question of whether he tried to squelch an inquiry into the alleged Russia connection.

Fanning the flames was a New York Times report that Mr Trump had called Mr Comey a "nut job" in a private meeting last week in the Oval Office with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia's ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak. The Times report quoted briefing notes of the conversation.

Asked for a response, the White House said that, for national security reasons, "we do not confirm or deny the authenticity of allegedly leaked classified documents".

Russia’s Interfax news agency on Saturday quoted Mr Lavrov as saying he had not discussed Mr Comey with Mr Trump.

“We did not touch this issue at all,” Mr Lavrov said.

In another development, the Washington Post said a current White House official close to Mr Trump was a significant “person of interest” in the investigation into his possible ties with Russia.

The fallout from the controversies did nothing to cool the welcome Mr Trump received from the royal Saudi family.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz greeted Mr Trump on a red carpet as the president stepped off Air Force One, and shook the hand of his wife, Melania, before before they rode together in the US presidential limousine.

It was a more favourable welcome than the one granted last year to Mr Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, who was seen in the Arab kingdom as soft on Iran and hesitant on Syria.

Mr Trump's nine-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy, the Vatican and Belgium has been billed by the White House as a chance to visit places sacred to three of the world's major religions, while giving Mr Trump time to meet with Arab, Israeli and European leaders.

At ease

Mr Trump and King Salman seemed at ease with each other, chatting through an interpreter.

At the royal al-Yamama palace, the king draped around Mr Trump’s neck the King Abdulaziz medal, Saudi Arabia’s top civilian honour.

The king was overheard lamenting the Syrian war to Mr Trump, who had ordered air strikes against a Syrian airfield in April in response to a chemical weapons attack by Syrian government forces against civilians.

“Syria too used to be one of the most advanced countries. We used to get our professors from Syria. They served our kingdom. Unfortunately, they too brought destruction to their own country. You can destroy a country in mere seconds, but it takes a lot of effort,” the king said.

Mr Trump’s response could not be heard.

The president’s decision to make his first official trip abroad to Saudi Arabia, followed by Israel, two countries which both share his antagonism towards Iran, marks a contrast with Mr Obama’s approach to the region.

Mr Trump’s criticism of the nuclear deal Iran reached with the US and five other world powers in 2015 pleases both Saudi Arabia and Israel, who had accused Mr Obama of “going soft” on Tehran.

Poll results showed on Saturday that Iranians had emphatically re-elected president Hassan Rouhani, architect of Iran's still-fragile detente with the West.

The arms package agreed on Saturday included a pledge by the kingdom to assemble 150 Lockheed Martin Blackhawk helicopters in Saudi Arabia, in a $6 billion deal expected to result in about 450 jobs in the kingdom.

National oil giant Saudi Aramco was also expected to sign $50 billion worth of deals with US companies on Saturday, as part of a drive to diversify the kingdom's economy beyond oil exports, Aramco's chief executive, Amin Nasser, said.

US technology and engineering conglomerate GE also said it had signed $15 billion of agreements with Saudi organisations.

Mr Trump is to deliver a speech in Riyadh on Sunday aimed at rallying Muslims in the fight against Islamist militants.

He will also attend a summit of leaders of the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council.

Ahead of Mr Trump’s trip, the White House said the president expected tangible results from Saudi Arabia in countering Islamic extremism.

Shortly after taking office, Mr Trump sought to block people from several Muslim-majority nations from entering the US, but the travel ban has been blocked by US federal courts.

The 70-year-old president’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium will be Mr Trump’s longest time away from the White House since he took office four months ago.

The uproar over Mr Comey’s firing looks unlikely to go away, but Moscow has denied any interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

Mr Trump has denied collusion with Russia and said the appointment of a special counsel was part of a “witch hunt”.

Reuters