When the country-music star Toby Keith performs in Riyadh on Saturday, will he sing of red Solo cups and drunk Americans before his conservative Muslim hosts? As he takes the stage alongside an Arabian lute player to honor Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, will Keith explain, as he does, that “[putting] a boot in your ass” is “the American way”?
The concert is a fitting image at the start of a fraught trip. On his way to the NATO and G-7 summits, the U.S. president will visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Rome—three high-stakes stops to symbolize three major world religions. While the particulars of this trip, much like a male-only Toby Keith concert, may be awkward, Trump’s itinerary is consistent with some of his emerging rhetoric on international affairs. This president has put counterterrorism at the center of his foreign policy—and religious identity, specifically around Islam, is at the core of that effort.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster alluded to the symbolism in a recent press briefing, noting that “no president has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslims faiths all on one trip.” And Trump himself originally announced the trip during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, where he signed an executive order on religious freedom. In Saudi Arabia, “the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam,” he said, the administration “will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism, and violence, and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries.” McMaster later expanded on this: Trump’s goal is to send a “message that the United States and the entire civilized world expects our Muslim allies to take a strong stand against radical Islamist ideology,” which “uses a perverted interpretation of religion to justify crime against all humanity,” he said. Trump will also call on Muslim leaders to “promote a peaceful vision of Islam,” McMaster added.