Mohammed bin Salman trying to remake Saudi image in the US
A change agent. Controversial. Dynamic.
These are just a few of the terms used by US media to describe Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s first visit to the United States since he became heir apparent.
For his part, the crown prince appeared unfazed during public meetings and media opportunities. To observers, it seemed obvious Crown Prince Mohammed knew why he was in the United States and what he wanted to accomplish.
The crown prince appeared on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” presenting Americans a rare view of Saudi leaders. Young, dynamic, focused and frequently speaking English, Crown Prince Mohammed left viewers with the image of a leader preparing the country he will one day rule for a new future.
The crown prince offered a vision of the future that most Americans would like. He has initiated social change that resonates with many in the West, particularly regarding Saudi women. In a few months, women will be able to drive, long a sore point with many Western observers. Women may also attend sports events, something they had not previously been able to do.
Last April, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud — no doubt at the urging of his son — loosened the rules that regulate what women can or cannot do without the permission of a male guardian.
Crown Prince Mohammed led the charge to open commercial movie theatres in the kingdom for the first time in 35 years. While the theatres may not show all the blockbusters available in the West, it is an important move in cultural terms.
It’s clear that one of the main reasons for the prince’s visit is to remake the image of Saudi Arabia in the eyes of most Americans. Since the 9/11 attacks, which were carried out mainly by Saudis, many Americans have viewed the kingdom with suspicion. While it was the late King Abdullah who began the transformation of Saudi Arabia into a more modern society, Crown Prince Mohammed, who’s just 32, is a more engaging figure for the American public and media.
During his meeting with Donald Trump, the US president heaped praise on the Saudi crown prince, which is bound to affect the negative perceptions that many of Trump’s conservative supporters hold about the kingdom.
Crown Prince Mohammed is also in America to do business. His trip includes meetings with executives from Uber, Amazon, the Hollywood film industry and General Electric.
The meeting with General Electric is meant to focus on Saudi Arabia’s nascent nuclear industry. The United States desperately wants to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia. However, under Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the United States cannot transfer nuclear technology to any country without a guarantee it will not be used to build nuclear weapons. The crown prince has said that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, his country will want to do so as well. This alarmed some American politicians.
Both Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed, however, regard Iran as the main adversary in the region. Accordingly, many experts say the Trump administration will find a way to waive the relevant section of the Atomic Energy Act and transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi crown prince’s first week in the United States was not without controversy. US Senator Bernie Sanders, who lost the Democratic nomination to run for president in 2016, introduced a bill that called for an end to American military involvement in Yemen. It was defeated but only narrowly.
Some observers saw it as a warning to Crown Prince Mohammed that he needs to proceed cautiously on the kingdom’s involvement in Yemen or risk losing support in the US Congress.
However, the crown prince quickly returned to his task of trying to remake the image of Saudi Arabia in American eyes. It will be another few weeks before it is known how successful his mission was.