Dina Powell: Trump found 'partner' in Saudi crown prince during 2017 meeting

Prince Mohammed and UN secretary general to discuss Yemen on Tuesday

In this March 23, 2018, photo, President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington. A growing American economy and passage of a Republican tax overhaul appear to be helping Trump lift his approval ratings from historic lows. That’s according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Trump still remains unpopular with the majority of Americans, 58 percent. But the 42 percent who say they now approve of the job he’s doing as president is up seven points from a month ago. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
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US President Donald Trump told his staff “we have our partner” after his first meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, former US deputy national security adviser Dina Habib Powell said in her first remarks since leaving the White House.

Ms Powell, speaking on Tuesday at the Saudi-US CEO Forum 2018 in New York, recounted the early thaw between Washington and Riyadh. When Mr Trump was elected in November of 2016, one of his first priorities was to tackle the terrorist threat and “we had to engage quickly and meaningfully in the region”, she said.

Prince Mohammed, then deputy crown prince, “reached out [to the US administration] and built strong relations with Jared [Kushner] and others”, with both sides pushing ahead on what could be achieved, Ms Powell said.

The March 2017 lunch with Mr Trump strengthened the partnership. Following the lunch, Mr Trump told staff “I think we have our partner”, noting that the Saudi counter-radicalism and reform agendas helped build the rapport. The US and Saudi discussions continued, leading to the president’s first foreign visit to Riyadh in May.

“A year ago no one would have believed that ISIL would be defeated,” said Ms Powell, who left the White House in early 2018.

She credited Mr Trump, who was willing let the US military do its job, and the Saudi crown prince, who saw the terrorist threat. Ms Powell also called Iran “the largest state sponsor of terrorism” and stressed the need to counter the problem.

As for the Saudi economy, Ms Powell said she saw the urgency in implementing Vision 2030 and that there was “one choice” in reforming and revamping the economy.

US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross spoke on the same panel as Ms Powell on Tuesday. Mr Ross said plans for Saudi Arabia's economy “could be more transformative geopolitically” than “when we stood with the Kingdom in 1938 as they developed hydrocarbon”.

He mentioned plans to build mega-city NEOM as one example of the transformation. Egypt committed more than 1,000 square kilometres (386 square miles) of land in the southern Sinai Peninsula to the planned mega-city and business zone unveiled by Saudi Arabia last October.  The territory along the Red Sea is part of a joint fund announced by the two countries during a visit to Cairo by the Saudi crown prince in February.

The panel also featured Saudi’s Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih and Minister of Commerce Majid Al Qasabi. They discussed legal and financial reforms in Saudi Arabia to enhance business and investment.

Meanwhile, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was expected to meet UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres later on Tuesday to discuss the war in Yemen and Monday’s Houthis’ attack.

Mr Gutteres who visited Saudi Arabia in 2017, strongly condemned the attack and called for "restraint amid mounting tensions”.

Saudi Arabia's Washington ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz said Iran should be held accountable. “The only way to prevent further conflict in the region is to hold Iran accountable for its violations of all international laws. Friends and enemies are watching for the world’s reaction; it will shape the behaviour of countries in region on the long term,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

The Saudi crown prince also met with investors and business executives in New York including Masayoshi Son of SoftBank, a major investor in Vision 2030. Prince Mohammed is expected to be in New York until Friday before heading to Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston.