This piece is part of our special coverage on Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to the United States this week.
Despite the occasional talk on a US-Saudi rift, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made unprecedented numbers of visits to Washington since taking office last year, with a third one starting this week in the capital and will take him after to New York and California.
Experts speaking to Al Arabiya English about the visit see it as an opportunity to build on Prince Mohammed’s economic plan, Vision 2030, and discuss issues of regional concern related to the crisis in Yemen, Syria, Iran’s role and Iraq.
A Modi moment?
The Saudi deputy crown prince has so far visited Washington during the Camp David summit in May 2015 and later with his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in September. This time, however, marks the most comprehensive visit for Prince Mohammed to the United States, leading a delegation that includes the energy, investment, foreign affairs and media members of the cabinets along with military and business personnel.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, tells Al Arabiya English that Prince Mohammed has an opportunity during his visit “to connect and talk directly with the American public.”
“He could pull a Modi moment,” he added, referring to the Prime Minister of India who is known to make unusual public appearances on foreign visits, creating a media splash and cultural connection with the host country.
President Barack Obama meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, center, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. AP
Katulis who had met Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia last December, points to his “youth, energy and vitality” as attributes that could boost the visit. Prince Mohammed is also more analytical and strategic in viewing the US-Saudi relations, “you don’t walk into a meeting with him and get the last hundred years of the relations,” says Katulis. This could lend him advantage in a potential meeting with US President Barack Obama this Thursday, while his candidness and businesslike approach could help in addressing a skeptical American public and business leaders.
In his interview with “The Economist” earlier this year, Prince Mohammed said: “We understand the work carried out by the United States. America is carrying out many efforts. We try to assist with all the efforts carried out by the United States. We try to express our point of view and I can tell you that work between us and the United States is very strong and very magnificent.”
While the final schedule of the meetings is not finalized, Prince Mohammed is expected to convene with US Secretaries of State and Defense John Kerry and Ashton Carter, as well as Congressional leaders from both the Republican and Democratic side.
Regional and economic agenda
The timing of the visit is directly tied to the launch of Vision 2030 last April says Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Diwan tells Al Arabiya English: “The launch of Saudi Vision 2030 and the passage of the National Transformation Program” will be discussed heavily during the visit and during non-political stops in New York and California.
The delegation will “likely bring a big economic delegation to promote the economic reform agenda and to seek partners and investors” the expert adds. The Saudi embassy in Washington estimates 300 joint ventures with the United States, making “American companies the largest group of foreign investors in the Kingdom.” The economic portfolio could help “Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed to strengthen his contacts in the United States.”
File photo from May, 2015: Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with US Defense Secretary. (Photo courtesy: Saudi embassy in US)
Prince Mohammed’s visit is also expected to tackle tactical disagreements between Washington and Riyadh on regional crisis. Diwan points out that “while many of the fundamentals of the partnership are sound – the economic and military cooperation is still extensive – there have been serious disagreements emerging about how to manage the unprecedented upheaval in the Arab Middle East and the challenge from Iran, which the Saudis unquestionably see as their main threat and rival.”
Katulis for his part sees the Yemeni conflict as a sticking point between the two sides, and where Prince Mohammed bin Salman can reassure Washington. He says that “Saudi has a good read and is aware of the skepticism and lingering concerns in Washington,” adding that Prince Mohammed “can offer a roadmap for a political solution and a glimmer of a settlement in Yemen.”
The 9/11 legislation that passed the Senate is also likely to come up during Prince Mohammed’s meetings on Capitol Hill, says Katulis. CIA director John Brennan sought to reassure Saudi Arabia during his interview with Al Arabiya News Channel on Saturday, calling the cooperation “excellent” and echoing confidence that the 28 pages from the 9/11 committee does not contain evidence linking Saudi Arabia to the attacks.
While the bumps are not new in Saudi-US relations, the populist mood in the United States is. It requires, according to Katulis and Diwan, a new set of skills in approaching the relations, “stepping out of the conventional box,” which Prince Mohammed will attempt to do by going beyond the protocol meetings and handshakes in Washington.