Crown Prince charming: Why Saudi Arabia's reform-minded royal is courting Trump on a U.S. tour

The White House hosts the House of Saud on Tuesday. It will be the third face-to-face meeting between Saudi Arabia's reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and U.S. President Donald Trump, as the Kingdom embarks on a charm offensive.

What to watch for as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets president Trump in U.S.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets then-deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohammed bin Salman in March 2017. The pair will meet again this week in their first face-to-face since Salman became the Crown Prince. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The White House hosts the House of Saud's new designated successor on Tuesday. It will be the third face-to-face meeting between Saudi Arabia's reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. President Donald Trump, as the Kingdom embarks on a charm offensive.

The world's largest oil exporter hopes to move away from oil dependency and market a new image abroad as a nation embracing what the monarch-in-waiting calls "moderate Islam."

Salman, 32, who told 60 Minutes that "only death" would inhibit his leadership, could well rule for more than half a century as the most powerful Saudi in generations. His talk with Trump will likely include, among other things, a reaffirmation of Saudi plans to enrich uranium and match Iran's nuclear program. The other ambitions he has from this meeting with Trump touch on a few major issues:

The war in Yemen

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, told CBS that Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire nuclear weapons, but 'without a doubt' will do that 'as soon as possible,' if Iran develops a nuclear bomb. (Dan Kitwood/Associated Press)
Congress has been pushing resolutions to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Yemen is controlled by allegedly Tehran-backed Houthi rebels, who the Sunni-majority Saudis view as an Iranian proxy and a symbol of Shia influence near the border.
U.S. Air Force tankers have been refuelling Saudi jets before bombing runs and providing intelligence, and have been providing assistance to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since 2015.

"The Saudis will want America's support on its military hardware," said Hossein Askari, a former mediator between the Iranian and Saudi governments during the 1990s. "They like to get America's maybe covert help, but it's very dangerous because if American soldiers are caught in Yemen and killed, this would further inflame the region."

Although U.S. provision of arms and logistics support for the war in Yemen might be good in the short run for U.S.-Saudi relations, Askari said, it could became a "headache" for the West if civilian deaths in Yemen can be traced back to American-made munitions.

"Every time someone gets killed because a bomb is dropped and 10 or 15 or 100 people die, these things mushroom into thousands of recruits against the U.S. and against Great Britain."

Foreign investment

Saudi Arabia is stepping up plans to develop a civilian nuclear energy capability as part of a reform plan to reduce the economy's dependence on oil, but it remains unclear whether it also wants to enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel, a process which can also be used in the production of atomic weapons. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As oil prices have plunged, the world's largest oil exporter plans to sell five per cent of Aramco, the state-owned oil company, next year. Meanwhile, the Saudi GDP was forecast to have a negligible growth of 0.1 per cent in 2017.

That's part of the reason Salman, known as M.B.S., wants to privatize five per cent of Aramco, to use the proceeds to develop other industries within the kingdom.

"M.B.S. coming here is important because he wants to send a message to the American business companies that Saudi Arabia is open for business," said Henri Barkey, a senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

All of this will be wrapped up in a national re-branding push for the Gulf nation as Salman relaxes hardline religious regulations to open cinemas and allow women to drive, join the military and attend sports games.

"It's trying to convince Americans that this is the new Saudi Arabia," says David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan research centre. "Dynamic, progressive, that they won't seize your assets."

That effort will be complicated by the sudden detentions and reports of abuse of wealthy princes, moguls and businessmen put under house arrest as part of an anti-corruption campaign in November.

The row with Qatar

The Qatar diplomatic crisis that has splintered the Gulf Co-operation Council, which brings together six monarchs of the Gulf, represents a major dilemma for the U.S., says Ottaway.

The crisis began last year, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt suspended relations with Qatar, accusing the energy-rich state of sponsoring terrorism and helping Iran destabilize the region by backing Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar denies the allegations.

But Ottaway notes that the isolation of Qatar disturbs relations among close allies of the U.S. in Gulf. It's also problematic for the U.S. because the Qatari capital, Doha, hosts a headquarters of the U.S. Central Command at the Al Udeid Air Base.

It's a vital "strategic centre" for the U.S. military in the region, having been a staging ground for airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

"Our whole defence strategy for the Gulf has long depended on collective defence by the GCC countries. There's no way you can have an anti-missile defence system to protect those Arab Gulf countries from Iran, if you have a fragmented alliance."

That has also been complicated by the firing last week of Trump's former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who Ottaway says was viewed as "more pro-Qatari."

"We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences," Tillerson said last June in Sydney.

Although Ottaway noted that Tillerson's replacement, Mike Pompeo, is a fierce critic of Iran, "we haven't really heard yet what he has to say about Qatar," he said.

The war in Syria

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that Trump, in a bid to hasten the end of U.S. involvement in the war in Syria, asked Saudi's King Salman for $4 billion to rebuild and stabilize parts of Syria liberated from ISIS. The report stated that Trump believed he had a deal by the end of the call.

If the report is true, Barkey expects Trump will press again for affirmation.

"Normally a visit at this level, with what's happening in the Middle East, you would expect that the main item on the agenda should be the future of Syria," he said.

However, Trump's stated goals for Syria will clash with what the Saudis want for the country still undergoing a seven-year civil war. In February, Trump told a news conference: "We're there for one reason: To get ISIS and get rid of ISIS, and to go home."

That would do little for the Saudis, who would prefer that Americans remain in Syria to prevent Iranian encroachment or gains in the Arab world.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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