Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has a lot riding on his first trip to the US
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arrived in Washington on Monday for his first visit to the US as presumptive heir to the throne. The trip comes at a crucial time in US-Saudi relations, and a potential turning point in American policy toward the Middle East in general. But it is also telling that the visit won’t be confined to Washington: MbS, as the prince is known, will also be visiting Boston, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston.
The time-span and breadth of travel is a strong indication of how much is at stake for the brash, 32-year-old national leader, and how central Saudi Arabia’s political and economic relationship with the US is to his national, and personal, strategy.
The young prince has had some bad press, and he wants send a new message: that he is taking bold and decisive action because Saudi Arabia has no choice but to change quickly and radically
The list of policy imperatives is extensive, but MbS also knows that, first and foremost, he needs to polish his image in the US. He’s been widely criticised as not merely brash and ambitious, but as impulsive and reckless by many American commentators. His personal efforts to counter this narrative began with a wide-ranging interview, aired on the eve of his arrival, with CBS’s 60 Minutes. When discussing his reforms on women’s rights, such as allowing driving, and promising new "regulations ensuring equal pay for men and women", he bluntly admits that, despite his efforts, "Saudi women still have not received their full rights".
Such outreach was important because the detention of some 100 prominent Saudi citizens at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton last year, ostensibly part of a corruption crackdown, was widely perceived as repressive and arbitrary. In addition, MbS, who also serves as defence minister, has been widely criticised for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading an intervention against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
In other words, the young prince has had some bad press, and he wants send a new message: that he is taking bold and decisive action because Saudi Arabia has no choice but to change quickly and radically — and that this requires determined, no-nonsense leadership. But he also wants to appear thoughtful, realistic and progressive.
MbS’s most important meeting, of course, will be with US President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday. But he’s also due to spend time with many cabinet secretaries and other administration honchos. If he’s smart, he’ll pay due attention to US Congress, and to Democrats, who may again hold crucial leadership positions following the November mid-terms.
His Washington agenda will certainly include pushing forward a wide range of high-tech weapons purchases, most notably a $15bn contract for the terminal high-altitude area defence (Thaad) anti-missile system. Given a series of missile attacks on Saudi cities launched from Yemen by the Houthis, many of which were said to have been intercepted by American-supplied defence systems, Saudi interest in this technology is stronger than ever.
Both Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration insist that those missiles were provided to the Houthis by Iran, and co-ordinating policies toward Tehran will be high on the agenda. Beyond expanded American support for, and fending off criticism of, the war in Yemen, the Saudi and American teams will be hoping to forge common strategies on other regional hotspots where Iran is active, including Iraq and Syria. Washington and Riyadh have recently intensified pressure against Iran’s client in Lebanon, Hezbollah, through sanctions and other means.
But while they may share the broad goal of containing, and even rolling back, the expansion of Iran’s influence in the Arab world, it’s unclear how closely Riyadh and Washington are working together to achieve this. Indeed, one of MbS’s most important goals must be to ascertain what, exactly, the Trump administration hopes to achieve in regional battlegrounds like Syria and how, precisely, Washington intends to accomplish it.
Trump and his aides will almost certainly press MbS for a quick resolution of the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, which Washington has come to regard as an unnecessary headache. Trump has made it clear he won’t go to a summit with Gulf Arab leaders until they resolve their differences. But MbS may be happy to stick to this week’s bilateral meetings for now, unless the American side can guarantee significant Qatari concessions to Saudi demands over ending support for Arab extremists and opposition groups, and curbing ties to Iran.
A trickier question involves Saudi Arabia’s nascent nuclear energy programme. The country wants to build 16 reactors in the next couple of decades so its oil reserves can be largely devoted to export. Washington is asking Riyadh to agree to a "1, 2, 3" formula, whereby non-nuclear powers agreed to forgo uranium enrichment, plutonium reprocessing, and selling US technology to others.
He just lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas, and unheard of mixed-gender public entertainment, such as concerts, are cropping up around the country
However, since Saudi Arabia will be largely mining its own uranium and has other potential suppliers — and given that Iran still has the right to enrich even under the nuclear agreement — Riyadh simply won’t accept such terms. Reaching a compromise could help US companies, including Westinghouse’s bankruptcy issue, and bring the project under greater American supervision and away from any stealthy weapons component. It’s a conundrum tailor-made for the art of the deal, if such a thing actually exists.
The prince’s social and economic reform programme, much of which is included in his "Vision 2030" agenda, seeks to modernise Saudi Arabia in a generation. Shifting from an oil-based economy to a diverse one is one of his most ambitious projects, and it involves vastly increasing his country’s infrastructure, technological and, especially, human capacity (including Saudi women). The partnership with US is central to all three pillars, which is why MbS is going to spend so much time in so many cities around the country in the coming days.
In Seattle, MbS will be hosted by Bill Gates in a meeting that, along with San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Boston, will focus on technology. In Houston, he will confer with energy industry honchos, and in New York City with financial industry and investment bigwigs.
Perhaps his most intriguing stop is Los Angeles, the home of the entertainment industry. MbS is determined to introduce an element of public fun, heretofore banished to private spaces and in many cases forbidden outright in Saudi society. He just lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas, and unheard of mixed-gender public entertainment, such as concerts, are cropping up around the country. He’s the first Saudi ruler with a lot to discuss with Hollywood.
The asks will flow in both directions. MbS is sure to be pressed on listing a proposed multibillion-dollar initial public offering (IPO) for the state-own Saudi Aramco oil company on the New York Stock Exchange, rather than in London or another alternative. And Saudi Arabia has been urged by Washington to foot the bill for US policies in Iraq and Syria that, among other things, counter Iran’s influence.
Few foreign leaders are this expansive in their US outreach, because MbS has a focus not only on the diplomatic and military ties but also on investments, technology and even culture. It’s potentially the beginning of a much closer era in US-Saudi relations, but MbS has to persuade his hosts that his plan to rapidly transform his society can succeed.
• This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and/or its owners.
• Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.