Saudi prince’s visit charts a broader path for US-Saudi relations
WASHINGTON - Official meetings between Saudi Arabian and US leaders during the Obama administration have largely stuck to bureaucratic platforms. However, the visit of Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has been different, as the young Saudi leader focused on a broad agenda during stops in Washington, California and New York.
It was the deputy crown prince’s third visit to Washington since January 2015. He led a high-ranking delegation of defence, economic and intelligence officials. The trip occurred at a delicate time in Saudi- US relations.
The particular timing of the visit “has everything to do with Saudi’s new National Transformation Plan”, said Stephen Seche, executive vice-president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. The initiative is the deputy crown prince’s signature accomplishment and aims to transform the Saudi economy away from oil dependency.
To help achieve that goal, Saudi Arabia is looking to its strongest economic partner, the United States, and the Saudi delegation included ministers of Energy and Investment. The United States and Saudi Arabia already cooperate in more than 300 economic ventures and signed new agreements during King Salman bin Adulaziz Al Saud’s visit last September.
Aside from governmental stops in Washington, the deputy crown prince also headed to California’s Silicon Valley for meetings with leaders of Google and other high-tech giants before heading to New York for more meetings.
After his meeting with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, he described the United States “as an ally to the kingdom” and his visit as coming “at a very sensitive time, in a kind of region with many threats surrounding us”.
The visit is evidence that “US-Saudi relations are much better than often portrayed”, said Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, and a former CIA official. Shrouded by disagreements over Yemen, Syria and legislation in Congress that would allow Saudi Arabia to be sued over the 9/11 attacks, the relationship has been questioned in US and regional media.
Riedel, however, cautioned against overstating these differences. “Saudi Arabia is a very strong partner with us in fighting terrorism in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere,” he said, adding that “the Obama administration has sold the kingdom more than $110 billion in arms in seven years and the president has travelled to Saudi Arabia more than to any other country in the Middle East”.
Seche, a former US ambassador to Yemen, said Prince Mohammed’s broad portfolio as deputy prime minister, Defence minister, head of the royal court and chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs “puts him in the perfect position to drive the agenda and steer the relations with the United States”.
Seche sees tactical differences on priorities but converging interests in “bringing the war in Yemen to a close, reaching a settlement that looks to post-Assad Syria, and defeating ISIS”.
The White House statement after the deputy crown prince’s meeting with Obama “expressed appreciation for Saudi Arabia’s contributions to the campaign against ISIS”, called for more Gulf assistance for Iraq and reiterated the shared goal of “supporting the cessation of hostilities and a political transition away from Assad” in Syria.
On Yemen, Obama “welcomed Saudi Arabia’s commitment to concluding a political settlement of the conflict and of GCC support to address urgent humanitarian needs and rebuild the country”, the White House said. On Iran, the United States acknowledged Tehran’s “destabilising activities and agreed to explore avenues [with Saudi Arabia] that could lead to a de-escalation of tensions”.
Riedel said the visit was “a good opportunity to broaden the relationship into more cooperation on education, economic growth and development… without letting differences of opinion obscure the strength of the partnership”.
A Saudi member of the delegation said the deputy crown prince’s meetings with members of the Congress “were excellent and thorough”. US Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, spoke of a “productive and open exchange of views… which reflects the close and long-standing partnership between our two nations”.
Jeff Zients, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, said the visit demonstrated “the United States’ desire to be a key partner in helping Saudi Arabia implement its ambitious economic reform programme… and the beneficial role US companies could play in implementing Saudi reform objectives”.