WHITE HOUSE - In a surprise announcement Thursday, the White House said President Donald Trump's first overseas trip will be to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with leaders from numerous Muslim nations to discuss a coordinated ideological campaign against radical Islam. The trip is scheduled for later in May.
The rest of his journey also will have religious overtones, with visits to the Holy Land — to try to jump-start the Middle East peace process — and an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
Trump told a National Day of Prayer gathering Thursday in the White House Rose Garden that his foreign travels as president "will begin with a truly historic gathering in Saudi Arabia with leaders from all across the Muslim world."
The president said Saudi Arabia was chosen because it is "the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, and it is there that we 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."
Coalition against terrorism
The task of the United States, Trump added, "is not to dictate to others how to live, but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity and stability to the war-ravaged Middle East."
During his campaign for the presidency, Trump repeatedly indicated he wanted the United States to draw back from solving all the world's major problems, proposing a more nationalistic and isolationist agenda.
" 'America First' is fully compatible with American leadership in the world," a senior administration official told reporters Thursday at the White House.
Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia will be historic "by every measure," said that country's foreign minister, Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir. He added that he had noticed increased support "from day one" from the Trump administration for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
A former U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jerry Feierstein, said the Trump visit "makes perfect sense."
"Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are going to figure prominently on whatever policy this administration is going to develop," Feierstein told VOA.
The visit will also send a very clear message to Tehran, just after Iran's presidential election.
The Sunni-led Saudis and Shia Iranians are engaged in a regional struggle for influence. The Trump visit will signal closer cooperation between the United States and Iran's adversaries.
"The Iranians will read it for what they are intended to read it as," said Feierstein, also a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and now at the Middle East Institute.
After Saudi Arabia, Trump will visit Israel, "where he will further strengthen the United States-Israel partnership," according to the White House. He also is to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, presumably in the West Bank. Dates were not announced.
Trump met at the White House in February with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and on Wednesday hosted Abbas.
During the Israel visit there will be a discussion about "ways to advance a genuine and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians," according to the White House.
After leaving the Middle East, the president will meet Pope Francis at the Vatican. Also in Rome, Trump will meet with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who hosts this month's G-7 summit in Sicily. The Group of Seven industrialized democracies consists of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom.
Before returning to Italy for that meeting of world leaders, Trump will stop in Brussels for a NATO summit and also meet with European Union heads of government.