Christian Science Monitor
If strategic relationships crave stability and dependability, the connection between the United States and its longtime Middle East ally Saudi Arabia has faced more than the usual challenges in the past year – perhaps especially in the last few weeks.
But with Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, visiting the US to assess ties with the Trump administration, he no longer needs to conduct a desperate search for a new White House point man to replace the president’s demoted son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Instead, Saudi crown prince is arriving in Washington with a sense of confidence. With Mike Pompeo, the kingdom has an administration ally on its overriding issue of Iran who has security clearance, the ear of the president, and is designated to fill the post as the United States’ top diplomat.
In short, the crown prince may be poised to appreciate how the recent White House turmoil giveth, even as it taketh away.
As he embarks on a two-week, multi-city tour of the US, Mohammed bin Salman is meeting with President Trump and other White House officials on Tuesday before meeting business and political leaders across the country.
Saudi insiders and US analysts say the visit is a chance for Saudi Arabia to reassess the investment it has made in the Trump administration and especially to seize the opportunity to push for policy change and action from what it regards as the most pro-Saudi White House in decades. If there’s any urgency, analysts say, it stems from a concern that the administration could someday be immobilised by potential scandal or its own internal turmoil and turnover.
One year on, the results have been mixed. Although ties are immensely better than with the Obama administration, there has been tough talk but no action – diplomatic, political, or military – against Iran.
The Saudis have watched with concern an administration lurching from crisis to controversy on a near daily basis. Even more alarming for Riyadh are reports that Trump has cooled on Kushner, who has lost his security clearance and is facing increasing legal scrutiny. “I think Saudi Arabia has unstated, but nonetheless very real concerns about the chaos that is going on in the Trump administration and in particular what it might mean for their best friend Jared Kushner,” says Bruce Riedel, Brookings Institution expert and author of Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR.
“One part of this trip is trying to get a handle on where the Trump administration is going and what is its future.”
But if the Saudis may be losing a key ally in Kushner, they gained a key partner this week for their number one diplomatic and political priority.
As a congressman in 2014 and 2015, secretary of state nominee Pompeo repeatedly advocated military strikes on Iran. As CIA director he has met with Saudi leadership, and has reportedly built up a rapport with Saudi leaders, particularly the crown prince. “Nominee Mike Pompeo has a very deep appreciation of the pivotal role Saudi Arabia has played in terms of countering violent extremist groups, and has spoken about the destructive and destabilising role Iran has played in the region,” says Fahad Nazer, a political consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington who does not speak on their behalf.
“I think there is a lot of agreement on some very important policy issues, and there will be a very good relationship between him and the Saudi leadership.”
While Trump has cited scrapping the Iranian nuclear deal as a priority and a point of conflict with outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, other observers say the treaty itself is not necessarily a priority for Riyadh, which will push for further action.
Instead, Saudi Arabia will likely push the US to combat Iranian-backed militias -confirmed and alleged – in Iraq, Yemen and Syria; disrupt the flow of Iranian militants and arms in the Arab world; and ramp up pressure to isolate Tehran economically and politically to counter its alleged agenda of regional hegemony and interference.
Saudi and US experts say Riyadh will urge the US to support its economic boycott of Qatar. The crown prince has his eyes set on another prize in Washington: a nuclear deal.
Saudi Arabia is finally pushing forward its decade-old nuclear energy programme, with plans to construct as many as 16 reactors to produce 15 per cent of the kingdom’s energy needs by 2040 – an $80 billion project that has attracted the interest of US, French and Russian energy firms.
Previous negotiations with the Obama administration for a nuclear cooperation deal collapsed in 2015. Riyadh refused to forgo uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing – key technologies for developing a nuclear weapon and a concession made by the UAE that paved the way for its own deal with the US in 2009.
“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” the prince told CBS in an interview.
With the Trump administration looking to revive the US nuclear industry, observers say Mohammed bin Salman is likely to push for a nuclear cooperation deal – one without a provision barring uranium enrichment – by personally dangling the prospect of billions of dollars of potential contracts for US firms.
In an effort to change the kingdom’s image and reach out to potential allies beyond the Trump White House, the prince is also using his cross-country tour to tout recent social and legal reforms to brand himself as a progressive reformer.
He will also play up his role as an ally on the war on extremism, emphasising Riyadh’s intelligence sharing with the US, its commitment to crack down on extremist speeches, and renewed commitment to “moderate Islam”.
On a visit that includes talks with Apple and Amazon executives, the crown prince will also sell his economic reform strategy. But the prince’s sales pitch likely will face some resistance over recent high-profile Saudi initiatives.