Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed in US for talks with Obama

It comes at a time of strained relations between Riyadh and Washington.

Prince Mohammed and John Kerry shared an iftar meal at the US secretary of state’s home. Molly Riley / AFP
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ABU DHABI // The Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected to meet president Barack Obama on a visit to the United States this week to discuss security and economic ties at a time of strained relations between the two countries.

After arriving in the US on Monday, Prince Mohammed, who is also Saudi Arabia’s defence minister, shared iftar with secretary of state John Kerry at the diplomat’s residence. During the meal, the two men “reviewed the strong and enduring relationship” between the two countries “and discussed a broad range of regional issues, including Yemen, Syria, Libya, and countering terrorism”, said state department spokesman John Kirby.

“They also discussed the Kingdom’s plans to transform its economy through its National Transformation Program” as well as the shooting in Orlando “and expressed their shared commitment to continue their cooperation in combating the spread of violent extremism, both regionally and internationally”.

Prince Mohammed is also due to hold meetings with CIA chief John Brennan, director of national intelligence James Clapper, US defence secretary Ashton Carter and congressional leaders from both parties, according to the Saudi-owned Asharq Al Awsat newspaper. There has been no official comment on when the prince will return home.

The Saudi Royal Court said the prince would discuss with US officials ways in which the bilateral relationship can be strengthened. Ties between the two countries have frayed significantly during the Obama administration, with enduring differences emerging over the Arab Spring, strategy in Syria, and US intentions towards Riyadh’s arch rival Iran in the wake of the historic nuclear deal.

Prince Mohammed is likely to reiterate Saudi concerns that the failing Syria peace process led by the US and Russia has no clear plan for Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to leave power although there is little prospect of a change in Mr Obama’s thinking. While the US in theory supports Mr Al Assad’s departure it has softened its stance on a timeline for this to happen, instead narrowing its focus on the fight against ISIL in Syria.

The establishment of frequent high-level talks between the two countries is in itself an important goal – a process that began with last month’s GCC summit in Riyadh, which was attended by the US president. Saudi officials would like the relationship to improve before the next US administration takes office in January.

But in a contentious US presidential election cycle where ISIL and terrorism have remained key issues, criticism of Riyadh has become a bipartisan issue and negative perceptions have reached unprecedented levels, making the task of strengthening relations more difficult.

This was underscored with remarks on Monday night by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who said “it is long past time for the Saudis, the Qataris and the Kuwaitis and others to stop their citizens from funding extremist organisations. And they should stop supporting radical schools and mosques around the world”.

Congress is also set on passing a bill that would allow Saudi Arabia to be sued by the families of 9/11 victims, while the White House is deciding whether to release 28 classified pages of a 2002 inquiry into the potential role of Saudi officials in the attacks.

Mr Obama has said he would veto the bill, however, while CIA director Mr Brennan said last week he believes the classified pages will be released and that “there was no evidence to indicate that the Saudi government as an institution or ... senior Saudi officials individually” were involved.

Despite the criticism in the media and by congress, counter-terrorism and intelligence cooperation between the two countries remains strong.

“Over the last 15 years, the Saudis have become among our best counterterrorism partners,” Mr Brennan said.

Prince Mohammed will also meet with United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon amid a row over the temporary inclusion of the Saudi-led coalition on a UN blacklist of violators of the rights of children. The UN claimed that the coalition had killed 510 Yemeni children during military operations, which Riyadh denied. The coalition has since been removed from the list. .

Away from discussions on counter-terrorism and regional crises, a key aspect of the prince’s trip will be selling Riyadh’s radical economic reform plan to the US private sector. The plan, which Prince Mohammed has spearheaded, is designed to move the country away from its dependence on oil revenue.

Asharq Al Aqsat said the prince will meet with technology CEOs in California, as he works to present Saudi Arabia as a future centre for technology innovation and, with the creation of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, a potentially massive investor in tech industries. It comes after the Saudi Public Investment Fund pumped US$3.5 billion (Dh12.9) into American firm Uber earlier this month – a move designed to prove Riyadh’s capacity and willingness to invest in the US.