The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is scheduled to visit the US today, marking his third foreign trip since becoming heir to the Saudi throne and the second visit to Washington since Donald Trump’s assumption of power at the White House. The changes at the White House and the regional and international developments have created specific circumstances, making the visit of the young prince of serious importance from various aspects.
The US, biggest Saudi throne backer
The 32-year-old Prince is visiting the US as he should expect the continuation of the nightmare of bitter attacks he came under by the Western media when traveled to Britain earlier this month.
On Friday, the NBC News in a controversial report broke the news that the prince, for more than two years, has been hiding from his father his mother, who reportedly was opposed to MbS’s becoming the nation’s ruler. The report could very well ruffle the feathers of the king-in-waiting as his trip date approached.
It is glaringly apparent that the son of the King Salman bin Abdulaziz is working hard to prepare the ground for seizing power in a highly tough and multi-rival race of succession as the sons of the founder Abdulaziz who normally take over the power one after another are all dead, with his father being the last one. Recently, MbS has been making rash cultural and social reforms, among them the freedoms granted to the nation’s civil society to attract the young generation’s support and popular legitimacy that will help him make it to the throne. In November last year, he also staged an anti-corruption crackdown on the wealthy royals and businessmen as part of the so-called economic reform and managed to largely neutralize the potential rivals.
Beside home changes, MbS also embarked on adventures abroad that to a large extent impaired the security in the highly sensitive West Asia region and drew internal criticism and challenges to his legitimacy. The ambitious prince understands that the support of the US, the biggest power holding the largest sway over the absolutely-ruled Arab kingdom’s political home affairs, can tremendously help him press ahead with his objectives. When President Barack Obama was in power before the US, MbS was a marginal prince, with Prince Mohammad bin Nayef glaring as Washington’s successor of choice to King Salman. But American’s mindset changed when Trump became president. His back had by Trump administration, MbS replaced bin Nayef as the first heir to the throne. The rule-thirsty prince can also count on the Trump’s patronage as an efficient way to weather a variety of hardships ahead. So, the analysts suggest, the trip to Washington comes to deepen the marriage of ideas with the American administration.
Building up pressures on Qatar
Certainly, another driving force behind Saudi Crown Prince’s US visit has to do with the crisis in the ties of the members of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council. Since July last year, Saudi Arabia and three other Arab allies, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, have cut off ties with Qatar. They also announced a set of punitive measures against Doha, including air, sea, and ground blockade. But Qatar efficiently overcame the ban effects via tightening its relations with Turkey and Iran, the two parties which at the outset of the diplomatic crisis offered sea and air trade routes to the Arab emirate. Saudi Arabia is increasingly turning out to be a loser of this regional tug of war. This comes while the preparations are underway by the US to hold a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, featuring senior officials from the Arab states. The effort, reportedly, is meant to put an end to the inter-Arab crisis and prompt a diplomatic rapprochement.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both traditional allies of the US. “The kingdom (of Saudi Arabia) is the oldest US ally in the Middle East,” Bin Salman said of the Washington-Riyadh alliance a couple of days ago. Earlier, during a trip to Egypt, the prince talked about Saudi Arabian investments in the US outstripping Qatar’s there.
The crown prince will also exploit the changes in the White House’s foreign policy team for his own advantage. Trump on Friday fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and nominated Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to fill the post. Definitely, MbS will discuss with the Americans the preconditions and also his red lines to lift Qatar ban in a way that White House will be compelled to back him.
Seeking support for Yemen war
Three years have gone since the Arab kingdom waged a costly war against neighboring Yemen. But Saudis have met their failure in a push towards stated goals as Yemen turned out to be a quagmire for the forces of the Riyadh-led Arab coalition. Saudi Arabia’s mono-product and the crisis-hit economy is now bearing the brunt of a war that is now in its fourth year. According to a Financial Times report, so far Saudi Arabia burned through $120 billion in Yemen Aggression. The Saudi rulers also are increasingly facing international pressures as massacre of some 14,000 people and displacement of millions more give rise to a genuine humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Now, Riyadh is observing its Western allies, at least ostensibly, becoming its critics and refusing to deliver much-needed-for-war arms to it. This cur-de-sec has prompted MbS efforts to seek a shortcut to victory.
But the Saudis know that a timesaving road to winning is inaccessible without West’s political and military support. During his recent London trip, the Saudi prince managed to have Britain rally behind him in the anti-Yemeni aggression. Now he is eyeing to garner similar sponsorship of Trump’s administration. But what is interesting is that some senators have recently been campaigning at the Senate to press the administration to end its Yemen war support for Saudi Arabia. Once the campaigners succeed in turning their efforts into a legislature, Saudi Arabia will lose the US assistance in mid-air aircraft refueling and intelligence. So stymieing these Senate efforts will occupy a significant part of bin Salman’s visit.
In the past few months, Saudi Arabia stepped up efforts to seal deals that will allow it build its own nuclear reactors. Trump government appears to have given the oil-rich monarchy the green light to chase its nuclear dreams. But the Israeli regime’s Prime Minister has recently expressed opposition to Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions during his early March US trip, calling on Washington to reject the Saudis’ nuclear energy procurement. Trump refused to bow to the Israeli demands, but it is highly likely that the president at the end of the road will reject to allow Saudi Arabia become a nuclear state given the pressures put on him by the pro-Israeli lobbies. Therefore, the crown prince will desperately seek a firm guarantee in this case.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia is set to offer 5 percent of its national oil giant Aramco for sale according to the Vision 2030 roadmap, unveiled in 2016 by MbS and is aimed at cutting the country’s reliance on oil wealth. An array of countries like Britain, US, and China are vying to persuade the Saudis to float the biggest oil producer on their stock market. Therefore, the trip will also see him negotiating Aramco share offering on the American stock market.