WASHINGTON – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s extensive cross-country tour of the United States, starting Monday, will include discussions with senior U.S. officials in Washington and business meetings in Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Of primary concern to Israel will be the expected talks between the crown prince and the U.S. administration on nuclear power.
Crown Prince Mohammed will meet U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday, their third official meeting in less than a year. They met previously when the crown prince visited Washington last spring and when Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign visit as president last May.
The crown prince is also considered close to Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law.
Trump and the crown prince will discuss a wide range of issues during their meeting, including the Iran nuclear deal, the wars in Yemen and Syria, the Saudi blockade of Qatar, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The crown prince is expected to lobby the administration and leading U.S. corporations to increase their investments in Saudi Arabia, which is trying to diversify its economy and reduce its reliance on the energy sector with its Vision 2030 program.
“This visit is going to last more than two weeks because it’s not just the usual round of meetings at the White House, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “He’s going to travel to different parts of the country and focus on moving the Saudi economy toward the future,” he added.
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Bin Salman was appointed crown prince in June 2017. Since taking power, he has been praised in many quarters for enacting major reforms such as allowing women to drive and reopening cinemas in the kingdom. But he has also been criticized for aggressive foreign policy moves such as the escalation of the war in Yemen and an alleged attempt to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign last November.
One of the purposes of his U.S. visit will be to improve the Saudis’ image in the United States. Many Americans associate the kingdom with terrorism and extremism due to 9/11 – the September 11, 2001 attack in which 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis.
The crown prince will try to present his country in a more moderate light, lobbying U.S. officials, legislators and influencers to support his attempts at change in his country.
In terms of policy, the crown prince is expected to focus on a number of important fronts. First and foremost is Iran’s nuclear program and its regional aggression in the Middle East.
Crown Prince Mohammed gave an interview to “60 Minutes,” broadcast on Sunday night, in which he confirmed that he views the Islamic Republic’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the “new Hitler” in the Middle East.
One issue of particular interest to Israel is the prospect of Saudi Arabia developing nuclear weapons in order to counter any attempt by Iran to develop an atomic bomb. In his “60 Minutes” interview, the crown prince stated that the kingdom “doesn’t want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
The World Nuclear Association says Saudi Arabia is planning to build 16 nuclear power reactors within 25 years, and is looking for foreign expertise to help build those plants – an area in which U.S. companies such as nuclear construction company Westinghouse and power generators like Exelon will hope to land contracts.
Israel’s Channel 10 reported recently that the issue has caused tensions between Israel and the Americans, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Trump during his own D.C. visit two weeks ago not to assist Saudi Arabia with its nuclear capabilities. He fears this could ultimately allow the kingdom to enrich the uranium required to produce nuclear weapons. Trump refused, though, reportedly saying that if the United States won’t assist Saudi Arabia in its nuclear ambitions, other countries will.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are also involved in proxy wars in both Yemen and Syria. The kingdom enjoys some level of support from the United States in both arenas, but it’s been widely reported that the Trump administration is unwilling to remain involved in either conflict.
“On Yemen, the main things the Saudis will ask the Trump administration during this visit are: What do you want? What’s your endgame for this conflict? How serious are you about confronting Iran? What’s your long-term policy?” said Ibish.
“The Saudis are worried about some of the criticism the war in Yemen has generated in Congress. But they will first seek answers from the administration.”
On Syria, the situation is even more confusing. Saudi Arabia was disappointed with the Obama administration’s approach to the war, which allowed the axis of Russia, Iran and the Bashar Assad regime to emerge with an upper hand. For all its tough rhetoric against Iran – and despite the single bombing mission it carried out against the Assad regime last spring – the Trump administration hasn’t changed course so far, and has allowed the rival axis to increase its control of Syria.
One of the crown prince’s most prominent foreign policy decisions was the implementation of a blockade against Qatar last spring by the kingdom and its Gulf neighbors. The Trump administration was split in its response to the blockade: While Trump himself and Kushner seemed initially to adopt the Saudi line against Qatar, other senior officials – most notably Secretary of Defense James Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – took the opposite approach and warned against expressing support for the Saudi move.
The fact that Tillerson was fired last week and is set to be replaced by former CIA Director Mike Pompeo has likely been perceived as good news in Saudi Arabia, as well as in the United Arab Emirates.
“The Saudis and Emiratis were not pleased with Tillerson’s approach, and senior people in those countries consider Mike Pompeo an improvement,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “I’ve heard from people in both countries that they’re happy about his appointment.”
Ibish, who works for a think tank considered close to the UAE, expects the Qatari issue “to be raised by the Americans, not the Saudi side. The Saudis are hopeful the personnel changes in the administration will create more space for them to push on this issue and get the results they want.”
Crown Prince Mohammed will likely discuss the issue when he meets with Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, for a policy discussion on Thursday.
As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the issue is likely to be raised but it’s unclear how prominent it will be on the agenda.
UAE daily The National reported over the weekend that the Trump administration’s peace plan will be discussed, as well as the White House’s efforts to improve the economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza – something Saudi Arabia has expressed support for. But it’s far from certain all of this will lead to concrete steps or decisions.
“If the Trump administration expects the Saudis to force the Palestinians to accept their plan, then they’ve got it wrong,” said Ibish. “There is a very strong incentive for the Gulf states to get closer to Israel – mostly because of Iran – but that doesn’t mean they can force a peace plan on the Palestinians. The Jerusalem announcement has made things very difficult, in that regard,” he said, referring to last December’s move by Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
Ibish added that “in the Middle East, nobody wants to invest time, energy and prestige on a failed process. In order to really get involved on this issue, the Saudi leadership would have to be convinced the Trump plan actually has a change of succeeding.”