This piece is part of our special coverage on Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to the United States this week.
The challenges facing Saudi Arabia and the US in the final seven months of President Obama’s term are numerous and challenging. The fight against ISIS will likely outlast Obama’s term. As the Levant is further torn asunder, President Bashar al-Assad’s reign of terror grinds onwards with Washington more focused on ISIS than Assad.
Meanwhile, Baghdad’s attempts to retake ISIS held territory has been bedeviled by internal domestic tensions and questionable military effectiveness. Also, Iran has used its post-nuclear deal moment to aggressively double-down in the region and consolidate its gains. Moscow’s push last September to save President Assad’s regime further complicated the dynamics.
And so, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s visit this week to the United States comes at a critical and simmering moment of domestic discontent. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican front-runner, has openly called for a ban of Muslims entering the US and a complete rupture of the principles that underpinned the US’s engagement in the Middle East.
At a time when challenges in the region from Iran to Syria require deep partnership, the hostile mood in the American political space leaves a narrower space to strengthen this relationship. While President Obama has cultivated and sold his own re-balancing away from the Middle East, America’s raging populism, which is questioning everything from free trade to Israel, is a more virulent and dangerous for America’s global position.
A new partnership
Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit marks an opportunity to invest new perspective and energy to this partnership. Unveiled last week, the National Transformation Program (the first of a number of programs launched under Vision 2030) is the most significant set of economic reforms in Saudi Arabia since the 1970s. Interlinked within this ambitious re-boot of the Saudi economy is the bilateral economic partnership between the Kingdom and the US.
The visit is setting a new tone: Saudi Arabia is more than just an energy heavyweight and counter-terrorism bulwark in the region. Riyadh is positioning itself to become an innovation hub and a substantial investor in the US and global economy. The Saudi Public Investment Fund’s $3.5 billion investment in Uber is an opening salvo in Riyadh’s new economic partnership with the US.
The security agenda
The Deputy Crown Prince’s planned visit to the White House is set to include a meeting with high-level officials.
While the kingdom’s energy policy will be discussed, this meeting is an important opportunity to examine ways to deepen Saudi-American cooperation on countering Iran’s regional behavior from Syria to Yemen. Even though the Camp David summit in Riyadh focused on these areas, this bilateral dialogue a month before Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s GCC defense ministers meeting in Washington is an opportunity to do a progress check.
The visit is setting a new tone: Saudi Arabia is more than just an energy heavyweight and counter-terrorism bulwark in the regionAndrew Bowen
While the White House will likely focus on cooperation in pushing back ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the meeting is an opportunity to examine how to more effectively push forward a political settlement in Syria.
Yemen is expected to be also discussed, including the humanitarian dimensions of the conflict. Washington will push for more safeguards in place to prevent civilian casualties. The cumbersome Kuwait peace process will also be a focus of the conversation.
The Deputy Crown Prince’s visit will begin to lay the groundwork for a more diversified public and private sector relationship between the Kingdom and the US. The more this kind of engagement (including outside of Washington) is achieved, as Vision 2030 is unveiled, the more both countries will create a new space for a stronger relationship.
2016 then is a transformative year for Saudi Arabia and the United States. November will resolve who will lead the US after President Obama. Vision 2030 will begin to take root as the Kingdom under goes it’s largest socio-economic transformation in almost a half-century. Hopefully, when a new American president is inaugurated this upcoming January, Riyadh and Washington will have space to build a new and more sustainable partnership.
Andrew Bowen, Ph.D is a Scholar-in-Residence at the National Council on US-Arab Relations.