First lady Melania Trump emerged from the front of the plane with the president, for their first appearance abroad, dressed in a black long-sleeved pantsuit and an oversized gold belt, her brown hair hanging down over her shoulders.
Deputy national security adviser Dina Powell was also spotted walking across the tarmac, dressed in a shorter dress under a black overcoat, and carrying what looked like a long black dress in her arms, but with no headscarf covering her hair.
There would normally be nothing out of the ordinary about American women dressing without headscarves in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia, where local women are required to cover themselves in public. Visiting Western women are expected to cover their arms and legs, but not necessarily their heads, and world leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have chosen to forgo a headscarf on official visits here.
Except that for many moments in Trump’s presidency, there is an old tweet from his feed to resurrect that seems to contradict his current actions — and the arrival here was no exception.
When former first lady Michelle Obama visited Riyadh in 2015 with her husband, to pay respects to the late Saudi King Abdullah, she did not cover her hair.
“Many people are saying it was wonderful that Mrs. Obama refused to wear a scarf in Saudi Arabia, but they were insulted,” Trump, then a private citizen, tweeted. “We have enuf enemies.”
If the lack of headscarves was interpreted on the ground as an insult, it was not apparent.
At an airport greeting ceremony over coffee, Melania Trump sat next to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who in a show of respect traveled to greet the visiting American president at the airport — a courtesy he never extended to President Barack Obama.
Trump — whose face, alongside a picture of King Salman, was displayed on billboards across the city in anticipation of his arrival, under the slogan “Together We Prevail” — received a red carpet reception at the airport, where Saudi air force armed with rifles stood at attention awaiting Air Force One.
His slow walk down the stairs was accompanied by trumpets and the boom of cannons, as seven jets performed a military flyover leaving a trail of red, white and blue smoke in their wake.
“I’m very happy to see you,” King Salman said, greeting the president.
“Great honor,” responded Trump.
In a further sign of respect to Trump, the king traveled with him in a large motorcade from the airport to the Ritz Hotel, the first non-Trump-branded property that the president has stayed at since taking office.
At the Ritz Hotel, Trump is likely to find many of the creature comforts he enjoys at home. The cable package included in the rooms offers CNN and Fox News. Room service offers homemade ice cream.
During the 12-hour flight to Riyadh from Andrews Air Force base, chief of staff Reince Priebus told reporters that the president spent most of the trip working, reading newspapers and preparing his speech on Islam, which he will deliver at the Arab Islamic Summit on Sunday.
According to a draft copy of the speech obtained by the AP, Trump is expected to strike a moderate tone that stands in contrast to some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric he used on the campaign trail. “We are not here to lecture — to tell other peoples how to live, what to do or who to be,” he is expected to say, according to the draft speech. “We are here instead to offer partnership in building a better future for us all.”
A White House official said the president is still working through five different drafts of the speech, which will be his first major foreign policy address.
Walking through the airport, Trump flashed a thumbs-up at a reporter — a gesture that was highlighted, in materials distributed to journalists by the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, as best avoided.
“The thumbs-up gesture is considered rude,” the pamphlet said, putting it on a list of taboos that included pointing at people; shaking hands with one’s left hand; staring at women; wearing tight clothing; and discussing sex in public.