Although her choice to appear bareheaded provoked a flurry of tweets, few here were surprised that the first lady chose to forego a head scarf.
Michelle Obama did the same during a January 2015 visit with then-President Obama.
Donald Trump criticized Mrs. Obama for her decision, saying at the time that the people of Saudi Arabia “were insulted.”
On Friday, some Trump supporters tweeted photos of Obama and Hillary Clinton wearing hijabs, or head scarves, next to pictures of Melania Trump with her long brown hair down.
But former First Lady Laura Bush didn’t wear a scarf to meet the Saudi royal family and neither have female heads of state, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May (who also appeared here without abayas).
“We don’t ask anyone to wear a scarf here unless you go into a place of prayer,” said Muna Abu Sulayman, a Saudi television host known as the “Oprah of the Middle East” who was covering the event here wearing a head scarf and abaya.
Melania Trump’s outfit still caused a stir on social media, in part because at first glance, her black pantsuit resembled an abaya. Abu Sulayman started receiving posts in her Whatsapp women’s group as soon as the Trumps landed.
The pantsuit was a hit, although Ivanka Trump — who is more widely known in the kingdom as a style icon and businesswoman — received more plaudits for her choice of attire: a calf length black, white and maroon floral dress.
“They think she looks sexy,” said Abu Sulayman, who agreed, scrolling through messages featuring footage of the Trumps’ arrival.
She thought Melania Trump’s oversized gold belt was a bit much — “somebody else might not have pulled it off” — but appreciated the former model’s modest hemline (she recalled Michelle Obama’s colorful dress was shorter) and choice of black.
“It was a really considerate gesture,” she said, since, “A lot of people associate it with the abaya.”
While most of the focus for the next nine days will be on President Trump as he makes his first international trip as commander in chief, there will be plenty of eyes on the first lady.
“I am very excited for the upcoming trip,” she said in a statement released Friday. “This will not just be an opportunity to support my husband as he works on important matters of national security and foreign relations, it will also be my honor to visit and speak with women and children from different countries, with different perspectives.”
The trip, which includes two days in Saudi Arabia and additional stops in Israel, Rome, Brussels and Sicily, will likely shine an unaccustomed spotlight on the first lady, who hasn’t moved into the White House, staffed an office or outlined a platform.
Melania Trump is the only first lady in recent memory born outside the U.S., in Slovenia, and also lived in Paris and Milan before moving to New York. She speaks five languages, including Italian, which could come in handy during the Italy and Vatican stops.
Her overseas schedule will be packed with events alongside her husband, but she is also expected to venture out on her own, aides said.
“She wants to take advantage of every moment and stop, and thus has a robust independent schedule planned,” East Wing communications director Stephanie Grisham told CNN.