WASHINGTON (AP) — Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman opened a marathon tour of the United States on Tuesday by soaking in praise from US President Donald Trump, who championed close economic ties and increased military sales to the Saudis as he hosted the young heir to the throne in the Oval Office.
Trump and the crown prince looked past the two nations’ differing views about waging war in Yemen as they came together for an Oval Office meeting and working lunch. Instead, they focused on areas of easy agreement: Saudi investments in the US, American arm sales to the kingdom and sharp criticism of their mutual foe: Iran.
Trump sounded an ominous note as he looked ahead to a decision in May about whether to stay in the Iran nuclear deal, loathed by both Trump and the Saudis.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “Iran has not been treating that part of the world, or the world itself, appropriately. A lot of bad things are happening in Iran.”
Prince Mohammed dodged a shouted question on the Iran deal, but waxed optimistic about prospects for closer economic ties amid “new waves of opportunities in different areas.”
“The opportunities are very huge,” Prince Mohammed said in English.
In a major Saudi shakeup last year, Prince Mohammed pushed aside his older and more experienced cousin to become first-in-line to his father’s throne, setting himself up to control Saudi policy for decades to come. Trump embraced the move, telling Prince Mohammed that “some tremendous things have happened” since he last visited the White House.
“Your father made a very wise decision,” Trump said.
While in Washington, the crown prince will hold separate meetings with a long roster of influential US officials, including the secretaries of defense, treasury and commerce, the CIA chief and congressional leaders from both parties. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and White House envoy Jason Greenblatt, who are drafting Trump’s long-awaited Mideast peace plan, will also join the crown prince for dinner Tuesday, the Saudi Embassy in Washington said.
The visit comes as the United States and much of the West are still trying to figure out Prince Mohammed, better known by his initials MBS, whose sweeping program of social changes at home and increased Saudi assertiveness abroad has upended decades of traditional rule in Saudi Arabia. The 32-year-old crown prince also has big economic plans, and over three weeks in the US he will meet businessmen in New York, tech mavens from Google and Apple Inc. in San Francisco, and entertainment bigwigs in Los Angeles. Other stops include Boston and Houston.
“This is not the real Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said recently about the repressive version of Islam many outsiders associate with the kingdom. He said he was restoring the more tolerant, egalitarian society that existed before Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservatives were empowered in 1979. He told CBS News: “We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal.”
It’s a message that has earned Prince Mohammed admirers in the United States, as he allowed women to drive and opened movie theaters shuttered since the 1980s. The crown prince is turning “Saudi Arabia into a normal country in which normal people lead normal lives,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters ahead of the visit.
Yet Democrats and Republicans have approached some of the crown prince’s other bold steps with trepidation, particularly in the broader Middle East. One bill in Congress proposes scaling back US military assistance to a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
Prince Mohammed, in particular, has been closely identified with the three-year-old war in the Arab world’s poorest country, which started while he was defense minister. The Saudis and their allies are fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels, but international organizations have harshly criticized the coalition’s airstrikes and blockading of Yemeni ports for contributing to thousands of civilian deaths and a humanitarian catastrophe.
It’s not the only regional mess the Saudis are in. In November, US officials voiced unease when Lebanon’s prime minister unexpectedly resigned while in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia was accused of attempting to bring down Lebanon’s government, which is strongly influenced by Iranian proxy Hezbollah. Prime Minister Saad Hariri later reversed his resignation.
The Saudis are working aggressively to change perceptions. They’ve cast themselves as essential partners against Islamist extremist groups and, especially since Trump’s maiden overseas voyage last year, touted their lavish purchases of high-tech goods from job-creating American companies. In Yemen, the kingdom says it is improving military targeting, opening up ports and pledging $1.5 billion in new aid.
“The concerns expressed there are reflective of deep concerns by the American public at large,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a Gulf scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Saudis are very sensitive to this. They’re certainly communicating with elite circles to discuss the measures they’re taking to try to get humanitarian assistance in to Yemen.”
The crown prince could dangle a huge carrot in front of Trump for his support. Stock exchanges in New York and elsewhere are vying for the international listing of Aramco, the Saudi oil behemoth expected to go public soon. Saudi concerns with New York include a post-9/11 law that could jeopardize assets in the United States if victims’ families claim Saudi Arabia helped the al-Qaida attackers and sue for compensation.