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For Saudi crown prince, US visit falls on bad times, and good

Turmoil at either end of a relationship is not necessarily conducive to a strategic partnership. But if the Saudis fear they may be losing a key White House ally in Jared Kushner, they are cheered by the prospect of Mike Pompeo as secretary of State.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman during a bilateral meeting, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh.

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 two weeks.

But with Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, coming next week to assess ties with the Trump administration and the country beyond, 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, the de facto Saudi ruler is set to arrive in Washington Monday with a sense of confidence. In current CIA Director 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, whose own rise to power defied royal family conventions, may be poised to appreciate how the recent White House turmoil giveth, even as it taketh away.

As he embarks next week on a several-day, multi-city tour of the United States, Mohammed bin Salman is meeting Tuesday with President Trump and other White House officials 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 immobilized by potential scandal or its own internal turmoil and turnover.

Nevertheless, observers say the Trump White House has operated in a way the crown prince could relate to: a dynastic family mixing business with politics, millionaires granting positions of power to relatives, and an atmosphere where personal ties – and at times vendettas – matter more than facts and traditional qualifications.

Evan Vucci/AP
Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump at the Royal Court Palace, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 20, 2017. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman connected quickly with Mr. Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law, another young man who suddenly came into a position of power.

Moving beyond Kushner?

US experts and Saudi insiders say the prince quickly cemented a personal relationship with the Trump White House to advance Saudi interests, connecting with Mr. Kushner, another young man in his 30s who suddenly came into a position of power.

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 – from the Trump administration against Iran, Saudi Arabia’s sectarian and strategic rival. Mr. Trump has issued strongly worded tweets and has denounced Qatar for supporting “terrorism,” but the US has not backed Riyadh’s blockade of its Gulf neighbor.

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.”

Iran, Iran, Iran

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, US experts and Saudi insiders say.

“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 destabilizing 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 also will urge the US to support its economic blockade of Qatar and isolate the Gulf nation diplomatically, another issue on which Mr. Tillerson was at odds with Trump and the Saudis.

Nuclear aspirations

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 program, with plans to construct as many as 16 reactors to produce 15 percent 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.

Fears persist in Washington that although the project is for peaceful energy, Riyadh may use uranium enrichment as a backdoor to a nuclear weapon and ignite a nuclear arms race with Iran.

These fears came to the forefront with reports of a warning issued by the crown prince, who also serves as Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, that the kingdom would develop a nuclear bomb if it believed Iran had done so.

 “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, an excerpt of which was released Thursday.

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.

Image makeover?

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 is likely to highlight a series of reforms that have shaken the kingdom’s conservative core: allowing women the right to drive and serve in the military, lifting a ban on movie theaters and music concerts, and curbing the powers of the religious police.

He will also play up his role as an ally on the war on extremism, emphasizing Riyadh’s intelligence sharing with the US, its commitment to crack down on extremist speeches and sermons, and Saudi Arabia’s renewed commitment to “moderate Islam.”

On a visit that includes talks with Apple and Amazon executives and a stop-over in Silicon Valley, the crown prince will also sell his economic reform strategy. His so-called Vision 2030 calls to open Saudi Arabia up to investment, move on from oil, and open the conservative kingdom up to tourism, cultural events, and the arts.

But the prince’s sales pitch likely will face some resistance over recent high-profile Saudi initiatives.

Senators from both parties are preparing a joint resolution barring US involvement in and support for the Saudi war in Yemen, in which more than 10,000 civilians have been killed. The US reportedly has provided the Saudis with intelligence, fuel, logistics, and millions of dollars’ worth of munitions.

And recent coverage in the US press has included reports this week alleging the Saudis’ use of torture, and earlier the detention of more than 100 high-profile Saudi princes and businessmen on corruption charges who were forced to hand over assets to the Saudi government.

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