Smiles and handshakes hide political problems as Saudi prince meets Donald Trump at the White House
The possibility of 9/11 legal action against Saudi, talk of the country’s possible nuclear programme, and friction over the war in Yemen all clouded the seemingly cheery meeting
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince received an effusive welcome at the White House Tuesday from US President Donald Trump, who hailed a “great friendship” with the kingdom – but made no public mention of the sticking points in the burgeoning alliance.
Prince Mohammed, who is 32 years old, was making his first visit to the White House since he cemented his role as the kingdom’s de facto political leader and embarked on economic and social reforms long sought by the west.
But an all-out PR campaign designed to burnish the crown prince’s image, and declarations that “relations have never been better” mask several problems that could spoil the honeymoon.
In front of the cameras, it was all backslapping, handshakes, smiles and warm words between Trump and the heir to the Saudi throne, Mohammed bin Salman, who was seeking to burnish his leadership credentials.
“It is an honour to have the crown prince of Saudi Arabia with us,” Trump said as the pair prepared to have lunch in the Cabinet Room. “The relationship is probably the strongest it’s ever been – we understand each other.”
Trump, touching on the sensitive shaking out happening inside the kingdom, said “some tremendous things have happened since your last visit to the White House.”
“You were the crown prince, and now you are beyond the crown prince,” he said, before adding that he misses Mohammed’s father, King Salman, and hopes to see him soon.
Prince Mohammed’s reformist message and the promise of Saudi investment in the United States has endeared him to the neophyte US president – 39 years his elder – and America’s own political princeling Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
Trump and MBS – as he is known in Washington’s corridors of power – have seen eye-to-eye on concerns about Iran’s military activism, Middle East peace, relaxing Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative laws and over their love for big ticket mega-investments.
“Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation and they are going to give the United States some of that wealth hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world,” Trump said.
But the truth is that the relationship between Saudi and the US is not as rosy as Trump makes out.
As Prince Mohammed arrived in Washington, word trickled out that Saudi Aramco – the kingdom’s energy behemoth – was cooling on the idea of a stock listing in New York, something Trump has publicly lobbied for.
Trump ducked a question about the issue on Tuesday.
The news was accompanied by expressions of concern about a US law that exposes Saudi Arabia to legal action over the 9/11 attacks, which Riyadh would dearly like to see removed.
“The Trump administration will not be able to offer the necessary guarantees on any changes to US law that would reassure Saudi Arabia and the IPO is simply too important to place in jeopardy,” said Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy.
Another point of friction is the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia leads a coalition fighting the Houthi rebels, who are allegedly backed by Iran.
That devastating two-year-old conflict was an early proving ground for the prince, then the minister of defence, but it has been beset by atrocities against civilians and strategic drift.
Just hours after the prince leaves the White House, Congress will vote on rules designed to withdraw US intelligence and reconnaissance support for the war.
The measures may not pass, but are designed as a clear warning to the White House against signing a blank check.
Trump is also expected to press his guest to end a stand-off with Qatar, which has wrecked Gulf Cooperation Council unity and put the US president’s plans for a US-Gulf summit at Camp David in doubt.
But the most delicate discussions could be about Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme, which is mooted as civilian-focused but could quickly become a platform for building a weapon.
“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,” he told CBS television in a recent interview.
Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme is “a massive contract that also has massive geopolitical implications,” according to the Soufan Group, another political consultancy.
“Letting the deal go through without the prohibitions (on nuclear weapons) would be potentially disastrous,” the group said.
But if these niggles turn into full disputes, it is likely to be only behind closed doors.
In advance of the trip, officials announced a monthly American, Saudi, and Emirati forum to discuss issues of strategic importance and hailed the strength of the relationship.
“We believe the opportunities are very huge” said Prince Mohammed.
After his visit to Washington, Prince Mohammed will embark on a nationwide tour, visiting New York, Boston, oil hub Houston, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. He is expected to remain in the United States through the first week of April.