Questions Over a Princely Visit to the U.S.

 Paul D. Shinkman
  9th-Apr-2018

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman completes a more than two-week trip through the U.S. this week, capping off a perhaps unprecedented tour through the most influential corridors of American power and influence.

Part of a much broader international trip that included stops in the U.K. and next week in France, the ambitious young leader's itinerary was designed to advertise the kinds of political and social changes he believes will improve the kingdom's place in the world, as well as secure new economic, military and investment partnerships with the U.S.

There's no doubt the trip comes at a time of transition for Saudi Arabia, particularly as Salman touts his Vision 2030 plan for domestic reform. At question, however, is whether these intentions amount to any actual difference for Riyadh or Washington, and whether Saudi's questionable human rights record at home and in foreign interventions, including Yemen, will ultimately scuttle any new goodwill.

"Saudi Arabia's role in the region is in a state of change," Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said earlier this week. "There's been a lot of discussions and interactions back and forth, [with] not just us but other nations relative to where Saudi Arabia might be going."

President Donald Trump has frequently expressed his enthusiasm for greater partnerships with Saudi Arabia, the first country he visited after taking office, in both trade and military cooperation. But the practical aspects of the relationship have proven more complicated than perhaps he expected.

In his office's latest annual threat assessment, Coats cited proxy forces of Saudi Arabia and Iran as the most likely sources of conflict in the world, along with North Korea. Iran, Riyadh's chief rival, has deployed its fighters or support throughout the region, including in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, the site of an ongoing brutal civil war that has been fueled by Iranian and Saudi heavy-handedness.

The U.S. currently supports Saudi Arabia in Yemen with aerial refueling and intelligence, despite widespread outrage including some in Congress over reports Saudi bombing campaigns that have reportedly killed civilians needlessly.

Coats did not meet with Salman during his recent trip. But following the crown prince's extensive meetings in Washington with Trump and key advisers like Jared Kushner, Coats declined to say whether his thinking had changed regarding the potential for conflict or changing how Saudi Arabia contributes to U.S. efforts to counter Iran's growing influence in the region.

"I have some additional information, but that's all classified," Coats said. He added, "it's clear that Saudi Arabia … is significantly positioning itself to be a counterbalance to Iran."

Despite the friendly rhetoric, there's little evidence yet of any change in the military partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Trump claimed in June, shortly after visiting Saudi Arabia, that he had secured an arms deal with Riyadh for more than $100 billion. Experts questioned that number at the time, saying it was derived from letters of interest from sellers, not actual contracts.

The president modified the estimate to tens of billions of dollars in arms sales during the crown prince's Oval Office visit in March. So far, the State Department has only announced its intent to sell less than $2.5 billion in weapons to the Saudis in the form of fighting vehicles, missiles, helicopter maintenance equipment and, as of Thursday, howitzers.

And those sales may be offset for Saudi Arabia by Trump's request that the Islamic kingdom foot the bill for the ongoing war in Syria from which the president is eager to extract the U.S. Trump in December reportedly asked the crown prince's father, King Salman, to contribute $4 billion to the war effort; he reportedly repeated that request to the crown prince during his most recent trip.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia seems, at least on paper, far more interested in defense transactions with London. Before arriving in the U.S. Salman visited the U.K., where he signed a $90 billion trade and investment deal, including a multi-billion letter of intent for 48 british fighter jets.

From the Saudi perspective, the trip has been successful. Both its length and its content shows the crown prince's intense interest in forging new relationships with the U.S. through stops across the breadth of America's political, military, economic and cultural hubs. In turn, he was welcomed by top officials and public figures from the president, to the leaders of Harvard University and MIT, former senior Obama administration officials as well as the most powerful executives in technology development and entertainment such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger.

"This reflects the appreciation the Saudi leadership has for how relations between the countries have deepened and broadened over the past eight decades," says Fahad Nazer, a political consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. "Crown Prince Mohammed visited the U.S. more than just to cement relations on an official level: He is here to tell a story. A story of a country that is undergoing a profound transformation and which considers its human capital — its youth — its greatest asset; not its natural resources."

"Many Americans have had a good chance to interact with Crown Prince Mohammed and hear him speak about his vision for the Kingdom and the role the U.S. and its myriad institutions can play in helping make it a reality," says Nazer, who says he does not speak for the embassy. "It is hard to argue that the visit has been anything less than a resounding success."

Yet others doubt whether these symbolic gestures amount to genuine change for the relationship between Riyadh and Washington, and whether either side gained anything from the crown prince's overtures.

Calls for social reforms in Saudi Arabia, including the reopening of movie theaters and allowing men and women to interact more in public, are offset by reports of the imprisonment of activists. And Western analysts are still trying to decipher the massive purge Salman undertook of hundreds of members of the ruling elite and business leaders, who were detained in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton over charges of corruption. By some reports the government recouped $100 billion in return for releasing some of them providing it with much-needed cash. Riyadh reportedly redistributed some of the funds to the poor.

And then there is the matter of Iran, a revolutionary regime the Trump administration increasingly wishes to contain in the region. Washington may view Saudi Arabia as the most effective partner for offsetting its own regional rival, one run by a regime Salman said this week "makes Hitler look good." But it can't take on Tehran by itself, experts say.

"There must be something wrong in their minds or their propaganda. There is no way Saudi Arabia can ever confront Iran unless they are confronting Iran with the American 'stick'," says Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. diplomat with experience in Saudi Arabia, now a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "And the American stick is not completely at their disposal, even with this administration."

Khoury considers Salman's domestic crackdowns and foreign adventures – particularly Yemen and threatening words toward Iran – as reckless and increasingly unnecessary for an American economy that is increasingly less reliant on Saudi oil.

"The value of Saudi Arabia to the U.S. is overblown," Khoury says. "And strategically, especially with a reckless leader, they may be more of a liability than an asset."

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