During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump attacked Hillary Clinton for accepting money from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, complaining during one of the debates, “These are people that kill women and treat women horribly and yet you take their money.”
That was, of course, before he made his first foreign visit as president to Saudi Arabia—and accepted dozens of gifts from the kingdom. In fact, during Trump’s visit, the White House accepted at least 83 separate gifts from Saudi Arabia, according to a document The Daily Beast has obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department.
The gifts range from the regal (“Artwork featuring picture of President Trump”) to the martial (multiple swords, daggers, leather ammo holders and holsters), to the baroque (tiger and cheetah fur robes, and a dagger made of pure silver with a mother of pearl sheath). Now when the president is contemplating the state of Saudi women’s rights, he can do so before a “large canvas artwork depicting [a] Saudi woman.”
Amusing as the gifts may be, they are emblematic of a more serious issue: Trump’s embrace of the Saudi regime, a stark reversal from his campaign rhetoric. During the campaign, Trump accused the regime of everything from being responsible for 9/11 to failing to “reimburse us the way we should be reimbursed,” going so far as to threaten to stop buying their oil if they didn’t shape up.
Trump’s decision to make his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia was a singular one, breaking with a long-standing presidential tradition of first visiting Mexico or Canada.
“Trump’s decision to visit Saudi first clearly signaled his top prioritization of America’s most profitable relationship with its number one weapons client in the world,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, told The Daily Beast.
No less noteworthy than the visit itself was the administration’s conduct during it. During the visit, the Trump administration announced a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis, totaling $350 billion over 10 years. This represented a decisive reversal of the Obama administration’s 2016 policy of blocking certain arms sales to the regime because of civilian deaths in Yemen.
As Whitson put it, “The Trump administration has gone well beyond any prior U.S. administration in its embrace of Saudi Arabia, not only with its vastly expanded, unrestricted arms sales to Saudi, but in a deliberate refusal to criticize the country’s atrocious domestic rights record and reckless, catastrophic, military campaign in Yemen.”
Kristine Beckerle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in gulf countries, echoed Whitson’s concerns, telling The Daily Beast, “Since Trump has become president, you see this real escalation in terms of what the U.S. is doing in Yemen.”
Beckerlie cites the dramatic rise in drone strikes and U.S. ground operations in Yemen as evidence of the administration’s increased involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, Yemen, the poorest country in the region, is being ravaged by a cholera epidemic that Oxfam recently called the “largest ever recorded.”
“There’s… no doubt that the Saudis feel they have total leeway to get away with whatever they want a recipe for further abuse, extremism and destabilization in the region,” Whitson said.