Saudi Crown Prince and Trump / White House
The Saudi crown prince is on a two-week tour across the US
Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS) began his nearly two-week swing through the US on March 20 with a visit to the White House and meeting with President Donald Trump. Washington is the first of several stops that will take him to New York, Texas and California.
The ostensible reason for the visit is to build on the already burgeoning US-Saudi relationship following Trump’s visit to the kingdom in May 2017, his first overseas trip as US president.
The Saudis could not be more pleased with this president, who seemingly lathers on praise for the kingdom at every opportunity. After eight years of the Obama administration, which oversaw the US negotiate the Iran nuclear accord and turn its back on the Saudis’ most favored autocrat, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Saudis had feared that its near-80-year relationship with its most important strategic ally was headed south.
A RELATIONSHIP UNIQUE AND DIFFICULT
To be sure, the US-Saudi relationship has been a vital one for both nations. Oil embargoes, US- Israel ties, 9/11, the US invasion of Iraq (against then-Crown Prince Abdullah’s advice), and the kingdom’s signature Wahhabi brand of Islam have all complicated the relationship. But it has survived them all and more.
Why is this relationship so unique and so uniquely difficult for both countries? Why does it make many Americans — and Saudis, too — uncomfortable?
This was always a partnership based on shared interests, not shared values. No two countries could be more unalike in many of their most cherished values. America’s culture, governmental system, laws, ethos and policies on human and civil rights are often diametrically opposed to those of Saudi Arabia.
What America and Saudi Arabia share, however, has been core interests in security and stability in the Gulf region and stability in the global economic system. It is because of those common interests that the partnership was born and has endured to this day, making it as important as ever.
But despite the happy talk between Trump and MBS, the relationship is in trouble, and that is good for neither nation nor the region nor the global community.
A KINGDOM TRANSFORMED?
Trump’s welcome (re-)embrace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia occurs at a time of tremendous change in the country. Leadership of Saudi Arabia will soon pass from the sons of Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state and impetus behind the US-Saudi relationship, to his grandsons — in this case to a quite young and inexperienced one. Previous kings rose to the position after years of sitting in councils with previous kings and other key family influencers and even having served in some official capacity such as defense or interior minister.
Except a few years sitting with and learning from his father, the reigning King Salman, MBS has none of that experience. Will he keep the counsel of his family as his predecessors have? Recent decisions for which he appears responsible — the kingdom’s heavy-handed engagement in Yemen’s civil war, the blockade against fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Qatar, and the house arrest of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh late last year — all suggest he’s making decisions on his own. That’s a dangerous trait for any leader, most especially an absolute monarch.
ALL ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP
Previously, Saudi monarchs would almost always seek the counsel and advice of the US on issues of regional or international importance. That’s one of the reasons why the Saudis have enjoyed special access to the White House that has been the envy of other nations. US officials, including the American ambassador in Riyadh, enjoyed similar privileged access to the king, other senior royals and top ministers. Coming out of an essentially Bedouin culture, Saudis view face-to-face encounters as the best way to build rapport and trust and communicate honestly.
Of late, however, President Trump seems to get the idea of rapport, which is important. But the Saudis still need the honest and frank advice of the US, too. What the kingdom and most especially MBS do not need is a cheerleader, which is how Trump seems to have cast himself. Saudi kings get enough royal blandishment at home. From their friends abroad, they need unvarnished honesty.
FOREIGN POLICY NEEDS WORK; KUDOS FOR DOMESTIC PLANS
That should start with serious discussions about ending the horrendous Yemeni Civil War and comprehensively addressing the consequent humanitarian disaster. There also must be blunt talk on ending the standoff with Qatar before the Arab world’s most effective regional organization, the GCC, is irreparably harmed. Finally, Washington needs a seasoned, reliable and effective ambassador in Riyadh — not the peregrinations of diplomatic neophyte Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law — to oversee day-to-day management of the relationship.
While his foreign policy decisions may leave the world scratching its collective head, Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s domestic policies should be applauded. His economic and social reforms such as the Vision 2030 are long overdue, though ambitious, and hold the prospect of impressive transformation in the kingdom. Its focus on youth and women is trailblazing. Just as the US helped guide the building of the kingdom, its institutions and infrastructure in the 1960s and 1970s, it can again play an instrumental role in shaping a truly modern Saudi Arabia to establish its place in the international community.
Again, that will require honest and direct communications, the kind that can only occur between friends. Gushing praise and unconditional support are exactly what MBS will not need.
WANTED: AN IMAGE MAKEOVER
The crown prince is wise to extend his US tour to other parts of the nation. Saudi Arabia has a very bad image in this country, not at all helped by 9/11, the kingdom’s appalling human rights record, an extraordinary wealthy royal class and Wahhabism. If MBS is to recondition that image, touting his Vision 2030, his attitude regarding muting extremists in his country, and his own personal vision for his nation will be critical to the success of the relationship. It will be quite a lift. His youth, enthusiasm — as was seen on the recent 60 Minutes on CBS — and energy should serve him well. But the image building, as well as the investment promotion he aims to carry out, will be vital to him personally and the kingdom.
Unlike his predecessors who visited the US, Mohammed bin Salman needs to extend his circle beyond Washington’s political class, the New York financial set, Texas oil barons and Silicon Valley impresarios. He needs public time, as uncomfortable as that may be. But if he wishes to win over the American public, especially critical as he and Trump mull over America’s possible (and unwise) abrogation of the Iran nuclear accord, he will need to explain why this is so important to Saudis and Americans. Saying, as he did in the 60 Minutes interview, that “If they [Iran] go nuclear, so will we” will win him few fans in this country. But interacting with Americans may begin to break down the many social and cultural barriers between these two very different countries.
MBS is likely to ascend to the throne soon. Only in his early 30s and with the longevity genes of his family, he could easily rule for 50 years, almost incomprehensible for any previous monarch. Getting this visit exactly right may be too far a reach, but tilling new ground with the American public should be a must for the man who will be king.