Saudi Arabia: MBS goes to Washington, looking for support that may not always be there

Published in GSN, 22 March 2018

Amid signs of wariness among the Beltway establishment, the Saudi crown prince arrived in Washington pushing for the high levels of political and economic support he expects from the Trump administration

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) arrived to a snow-covered Washington on 20 March, receiving a warm welcome from President Donald Trump but a rather more frosty reception from other parts of the Washington establishment. There is still no shortage of Americans happy to give their public support to MBS – not least in the White House - but after all the positive attention he has received for daring to challenge the kingdom’s economic and social status quo, there is also clearly an undercurrent of scepticism about the crown prince.

MBS was greeted on arrival in the US capital by Saudi ambassador to the United States (his younger brother) Prince Khalid Bin Salman.The large delegation accompanying the crown prince includes foreign affairs minister Adel Bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, finance minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan, energy, industry and mineral resources minister Khalid Bin Abdelaziz Al-Falih, commerce and investment minister Majid Bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi, culture and information minister Awwad Bin Saleh Al-Awwad, General Intelligence Service chief Khalid Bin Ali Al-Humaidan and close MBS adviser and Council of Ministers member Mohammed Al Al-Sheikh.

MBS is planning an extensive cross-country expedition lasting almost three weeks, which will take him from Washington DC to Washington state, via New York, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Defence and politics will dominate the early days of the visit, but they will be supplanted by economics and business dealings thereafter.

The flurry of meetings in Washington began with a photo call in the White House on 20 March, at which Trump brandished a series of large cards detailing some of the purchases of American military equipment made by the Saudis over the past year. “$525m – that’s peanuts for you”, Trump joked with MBS in relation to one deal: “You should have increased it.”

MBS is proving adept at stroking Trump’s ego and offering support for the president’s main political focus; he pointed out that Saudi investments support “more than 4m jobs” in the US.

However, the episode also served to highlight the fact that much of the $110bn in deals announced when Trump visited Riyadh in May 2017 have yet to be converted into firm contracts (GSN 1,037/5). “The president announced he was somehow going to arrange with Saudi Arabia $110bn worth of deals. We haven’t seen anything close to that. I’ve added up the arms deals and they come up to about $25bn,” former Defense Department official turned board member at the Atlantic Council think-tank Dov Zakheim said.

Military deals are an intrinsic element of the US-Saudi relationship, but they are also increasingly controversial. An attempt by some senators to halt US support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen failed on 20 March, but it is still a sentiment the Saudis cannot simply ignore. For now the White House remains behind Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen, even if it is also publically calling for a diplomatic resolution.

Riyadh also wants to gain US approval for its nuclear energy programme, although it will almost certainly have to accept greater restrictions than it might like (GSN 1,055/10).

Emphasising Iran, forgetting Qatar

Also on the agenda are discussions about how to ratchet up pressure on Iran. Saudi Arabia has said it would like the US to take a firmer line on the Islamic Republic, but it is not clear just what it is after or – if Trump does pull out of the Iran nuclear deal in May, as he has so often threatened to do – what sort of diplomatic framework or initiatives Riyadh expects to supplant it. New secretary of state Mike Pompeo is expected to offer a sympathetic ear.

One topic that Riyadh appears to want to limit discussion of is the diplomatic stand-off with Qatar. Outgoing secretary of state Rex Tillerson had pushed for compromise, but even after his abrupt ousting – fired by Trump via a tweet on 13 March – the Beltway establishment would far prefer a united Gulf Arab bloc, particularly when dealing with the perceived Iranian threat. The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) remains split over the Qatar crisis and the situation appears to be far from resolution.

With Washington apparently without any plan to fix the GCC split, the Saudi visitors seemed uninterested in a conflict which has attracted so much attention since mid-2017. “The crisis in Qatar is a small issue on the agenda,” Al-Jubeir told a press conference held at the Saudi embassy to launch the trip. The Trump administration is hoping to hold a US-GCC summit meeting later in the year, possibly at Camp David, which may not happen if the diplomatic standoff continues.

Trump nominated hawkish Central Intelligence Agency chief Pompeo as his new secretary of state on 20 March. Many in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see this as a potential boost to their influence in Washington. Pompeo is unlikely to get an easy ride during his confirmation hearings in Congress though, and it will be some time before he is in place.

Kushner’s diminishing fan club

Other Riyadh allies in the White House appear more vulnerable by the day, foremost being presidential son-in-law, senior advisor and envoy on the Middle East Jared Kushner, whose security clearance was downgraded in late February. Kushner remains under scrutiny for his business and diplomatic dealings with senior figures in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Riyadh.

Despite his loss of access to the most sensitive briefings – some of which Trump could simply (and legally) pass on to him – Kushner remains the administration’s point man on the Middle East. He held talks with MBS on 21 March, alongside US special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt. MBS has previously ‘bonded’ with Kushner, but may be advised to be wary of potentially damaged goods. Kushner’s ability to get anything done on Israel-Palestine, Qatar, Iran or Yemen is questionable.

Away from the White House, opinion of Kushner’s pivotal role in the Middle East and other dossiers is mainly registered along a descending scale of negatives within the Washington Beltway.

“Jared Kushner never came into this job with any expertise regarding any of these issues and the expertise in the [State] Department is not being relied on. And Trump… he’s happy that he can just wing it,” said former US diplomat and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East Nabeel Khoury. “With this kind of attitude, I don’t know that all these issues are going to be dealt with properly. Frankly I’m not sure on the Saudi side things are much better. They’re probably a little better, but MBS is a young, brash to the point of being reckless, leader who is in a hurry to accumulate power and assert his power not just in Saudi Arabia but in the region. Between the two of them I don’t know whether to laugh or be scared.”

MBS has been meeting plenty of other senior Capitol Hill figures, including House of Representatives majority leader Kevin McCarthy, House speaker Paul Ryan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. He met numerous other senior congressional figures and was scheduled to hold talks with Pompeo, national security adviser HR McMaster (a safe pair of hands but himself said to be under pressure for his job) and defence secretary Jim Mattis.

This glad-handing will no doubt help to shore up Saudi support on the Hill and avoid any chance of Congress voting to impose meaningful restrictions on arms sales. Meanwhile more defence deals are being hammered out; MBS held meetings while in Washington with executives of leading defence suppliers The Boeing Company, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin Corporation and General Dynamics. More broadly, MBS has spoken about some $400bn in deals – although it is not clear if that covers Saudi investments in the US, Saudi purchases from the US, American investments in Saudi Arabia or all three.

Soft soap for the media

The crown prince’s carefully-chosen words are part of a sustained PR blitz aimed at the White House, Congress and the wider American public. This was apparent in a soft-soap interview broadcast on CBS on 19 March, MBS’s first with a US television network. But deal-making enthusiasm of some in Washington is leavened by a healthy degree of scepticism, not least over the number of enemies MBS appears prepared to make back at home by demoting and firing senior royals and military officials and locking up them and other members of the business elite (GSN 1,055/4, 1,050/1).

“This visit is obviously a very, very big deal for the crown prince and frankly for the Trump administration… There’s a mutual desire here. Mr Trump wants to sell stuff. The crown prince wants American investment,” Zakheim said. However, “while it appears that the crown prince is clearly the strongman for now, one shouldn’t overlook the fact that by removing the joint chiefs last month and by removing Prince Miteb Bin Abdullah from the National Guard, he’s alienated a lot of people with guns. Although some people say it doesn’t matter… if some of these folks at the colonel level, at the lieutenant colonel level, feel that their bosses have been mistreated you just never know how that plays out.”