Saudi crown prince looks beyond Trump as he eyes long-term investment in US

The campaign goes for the long haul and looks far beyond US President Donald Trump’s administration.
Sunday 25/03/2018
US President Donald Trump (C-R) holds a lunch meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (C-L) and members of his delegation, on March 20.(AFP)
Shared goals. US President Donald Trump (C-R) holds a lunch meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (C-L) and members of his delegation, on March 20. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - With his first visit to the United States since he became heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has embarked on an image and strategic repositioning campaign for himself and his country that goes for the long haul and looks far beyond US President Donald Trump’s administration.

Eager to present Saudi Arabia as a land of opportunity for investors and a steadfast ally of the West, Crown Prince Mohammed, 32, met with Trump and other officials during several days of talks in Washington. He then set off on a 2-week, coast-to-coast tour, during which he was to meet with the leaders of Apple, Google and Amazon as well as Hollywood and oil executives.

Following his marathon tour through the United States, the crown prince was expected in France on April 8 but the jury is out on to what extent his campaign could be successful.

Sitting next to the US president in the Oval Office on March 20, Crown Prince Mohammed said more than half of the projects included in a plan from last year for $200 billion of Saudi investments in the United States, including the purchase of military equipment, had been finalised.

“We planned this for next ten years but it happens in one year, we implement 55%,” the crown prince said during televised remarks with Trump. “So this is [a] signal that there are a lot of things [that] could be tackled in the close future and more opportunities,” the prince added in English.

“We’ve become very good friends over a fairly short period of time,” Trump said, while lavishing praise on the crown prince, who became first in the line of succession to the Saudi throne last year and has established himself as his country’s de facto ruler. Crown Prince Mohammed has made headlines around the world with reforms that ended the ban on women driving cars and with a massive crackdown on corruption suspects described by some as potential rivals.

During his US tour, which includes stops in New York, Boston, California and Texas, the crown prince will be trying to drum up support for his Vision 2030 plan, an ambitious reform project designed to diversify the Saudi economy and modernise state institutions to ensure Saudi Arabia’s future once oil supplies run out.

Crown Prince Mohammed has had excellent ties with the Trump administration since last year and is especially close to the president’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy Jared Kushner. Saudi Arabia shares Trump’s scepticism about the international nuclear deal with Iran and has threatened to seek nuclear weapons itself if Tehran gets the bomb.

For Crown Prince Mohammed, however, the US visit is about much more than just the current administration.

“He is trying to lay the groundwork for strong relations with the United States for what he hopes will be decades as king of Saudi Arabia,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a non-partisan organisation in Washington advocating US support for reform in the Middle East. “He wants to establish relationships with companies and investors and build confidence.”

ABC News quoted a source close to the Saudis as saying the crown prince’s tour of the United States was not really about Washington as much as the other cities he is to visit.

Improving Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States is bound to be an uphill battle after years of adversity, especially since the September 11, 2001, attacks. A Gallup poll published last year indicated that two-thirds of American respondents said they had an unfavourable opinion of the kingdom.

Opinions still seem shaped by negative perceptions of human rights, women, religious intolerance and Islamist extremism in the kingdom. News reports say Saudi Arabia has begun a comprehensive public relations campaign in line with the crown prince’s reform programme with the goal of helping change the country’s image.

The PR campaign has suffered setbacks recently, however. Western rights groups and newspapers published allegations that prominent figures targeted in the anti-corruption campaign were physically abused. Saudi authorities vehemently rejected the allegations.

McInerney said Crown Prince Mohammed would have to implement more of his reform programme before the views of Americans about Saudi Arabia start to change. “He will have to go much further than he has gone so far,” he said.

In responding to such criticism, Saudi officials point to the wide support the crown prince’s anti-corruption drive enjoys at home and plead for patience with their country as it introduces ground-breaking reforms in what is still a fundamentally conservative society.

Crown Prince Mohammed is turning “Saudi Arabia into a normal country in which normal people lead normal lives,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said before the crown prince’s visit to the United States.