Public smiles, private problems as Saudi prince visits White House

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Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince heads to the White House Tuesday, looking to underscore his grip on power and ensure that several emerging points of friction don’t threaten a burgeoning alliance with Donald Trump.

In front of the cameras, it will be all back-slapping, handshakes, smiles and warm words.

This is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first visit to the Oval Office since the 32-year-old cemented his role as the kingdom’s de facto political leader and embarked on economic and social reforms long sought by the west.

His 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.

“While the crown prince is in Washington, we’ll be advocating for $35 billion in commercial deals for US companies that would support 120,000 American jobs and advance Saudi Arabia’s economic reform agenda,” a senior US administration official said.

Ripples in the pond
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.

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.

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 Huthi 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 defense, 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 standoff 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 program, 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 program 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.

“The president’s meeting with the crown prince” one US official said, “is a tremendous opportunity to make progress on a range of issues and strengthen these bilateral relations.”

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.