Saudi crown prince’s US talks set to deepen bilateral ties, regional understandings

Trump lauded the Saudi King's “very wise decision” to make Crown Prince Mohammed first in line to the throne.
Sunday 25/03/2018
US President Donald Trump (R) shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in the Oval Office, on March 20.  (AFP)
Receptive ears. US President Donald Trump (R) shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in the Oval Office, on March 20. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - During his visit to the United States, the first since becoming Saudi Arabia’s heir apparent and de facto ruler, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz worked to buttress his personal standing and promote Saudi interests in the United States for years to come.

He clearly found more receptive ears at the Trump White House than he did under the Obama administration. An enthusiastic US President Donald Trump lauded Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s “very wise decision” to make Crown Prince Mohammed first in line to the throne.

“The relationship is probably the strongest it’s ever been,” said Trump. “We understand each other.”

For Riyadh, which has advocated a more hard-line US position on Iran, recent senior personnel changes in Washington are likely to further anchor US opposition to Tehran’s ambitions and might seal the fate of the Iran nuclear deal.

A week after the replacement of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, the White House announced that national security adviser H.R. McMaster would be replaced with former UN Ambassador John Bolton, considered a foreign policy hawk.

The final decision about the nuclear deal has not been announced but US-Iranian relations are unlikely to improve. “We’ll see what happens,” Trump said, with the crown prince in attendance. “Iran has not been treating that part of the world, or the world itself, appropriately.”

The Saudis are also hoping for a better understanding of their grievances against Qatar after the firing of Tillerson, who was perceived as too close to Doha. Grievances include Doha’s ties to extremist groups and Iran. A US-GCC summit in May might still be in the works but would not be about the row with Qatar. The dispute is an “inter-GCC problem,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was quoted as saying by the National, on March 23.

The Israeli website DEBKAfile reported that plans to relocate a major US military base in Qatar to Saudi Arabia were “approved” during the Trump-Crown Prince Mohammed meeting but there was no confirmation of such a move from Washington or Riyadh.

Crown Prince Mohammed discussed arms deals worth billions as he met with Trump and other top officials in Washington. In an Oval Office meeting with the crown prince, Trump said US arms sales worth almost $20 billion to Riyadh were under way and many more were planned. His administration announced a $670 million arms deal with Riyadh on March 22.

Crown Prince Mohammed also touted planned Saudi investments of several hundreds of billions of dollars in the United States.The Trump administration regards Saudi Arabia under the crown prince as a key partner in its quest to thwart Iran’s regional ambitions. Trump picked Saudi Arabia as the destination of his first overseas trip as president and is eager to repair ties to end Riyadh’s frustration that built up under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

However, talks in Washington showed the complexities at play regarding the Yemen war, especially with the United States providing intelligence and logistical support to the Saudis in that conflict.

The White House said Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed talked about “the threat the Houthis pose to the region, assisted by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

The crown prince and Trump were also said to have “discussed additional steps to address the humanitarian situation and agreed that a political resolution to the conflict is ultimately necessary to meet the needs of the Yemeni people.”

Even more directly, war critics in Washington, including members of Congress, highlighted the heavy toll of the conflict in terms of casualties and effect on the civilian population.

As the crown prince sat down with Trump, the US Senate voted on a bipartisan resolution seeking an end to US support for the Yemen conflict. The Senate, following a request by US Defence Secretary James Mattis, rejected the bill. Mattis warned an end to US support would add to civilian casualties and embolden the Houthis, who have launched missile attacks against Saudi targets.

After meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed, Mattis insisted Saudi Arabia was going to be “part of the solution” in Yemen and that an end to the conflict will be on “positive terms for the people of Yemen but also security for the nations in the peninsula.”

Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a Gulf scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: “The Saudis are very sensitive to this. They’re certainly communicating with elite circles to discuss the measures they’re taking to try to get humanitarian assistance into Yemen.”

The Palestinian-Israeli so-called “deal of the century” was also discussed by Crown Prince Mohammed with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy for Middle East peace.

The prospects for such a deal have become critically garbled after the US president’s decision to transfer the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a decision opposed by the Saudis. No information trickled about the timeline for announcing the deal.