Longtime U.S. allies like the U.K. and South Korea have seen relations fray since President Donald Trump took office, but at least one nation sees its partnership growing tighter than ever: Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will meet Trump in Washington on Tuesday at the start of a three-week American tour. The two countries are developing an increasingly close partnership, encompassing everything from isolating Iran to bolstering business ties beyond energy into technology, defense and entertainment, according to top U.S. and Saudi officials.
“Our relationship with the U.S. is at an all-time high,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Washington on Monday.
For the U.S., it’s a dramatic turn from the Obama administration, which was cool to Saudi Arabia’s autocratic rulers over a human rights record that remains abysmal, according to advocacy groups such as Amnesty International. But Trump has signaled he won’t seek to impose U.S. values on countries that support American foreign policy and economic objectives — and Prince Mohammed arrives in the U.S. ready to cut deals.
The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund announced on Monday that it would take a $400 million stake in Endeavor, one of Hollywood’s biggest talent and event managers. More deals are likely as the 32-year-old crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, plans meetings with business leaders at a half-dozen stops across the U.S. through April 7.
“When we look at the challenges that we face, whether it’s Iran, whether it’s Syria, whether it’s Yemen, whether it’s the peace process, whether it’s Libya, whether it’s supporting Iraq, whether it’s trying to stabilize Afghanistan, whether it’s terrorism and extremism and terror financing, our interests are completely aligned and our vision for what we think needs to happen is virtually identical,” al-Jubeir said.
One focus of Prince Mohammed’s meeting with Trump will be expanding cooperation to counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East, including the Islamic Republic’s alliance with Russia, according to White House officials who briefed reporters before the crown prince’s arrival.
The agenda will also surely include the White House’s continuing efforts to develop a Middle East peace plan, an effort that appeared sidelined after Trump late last year declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and said he’d move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. Few details have emerged since about the peace plan, brokered by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, but Saudi political support and financing are seen as critical elements.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is furious about the embassy announcement, pre-emptively rejected the Kushner plan in a speech on Monday in which he called the American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a “son of a dog.”
Like Saudi Arabia, Israel is the rare American ally to see improved relations under Trump. Also like Saudi Arabia, Israel shares a common foe with the U.S. in Iran.
Officials said Trump will also seek to negotiate an end to a simmering dispute between a Saudi-led bloc and Qatar, a key U.S. ally the Saudis accuse of helping to finance terrorism. Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeatedly failed to negotiate an accord between the two sides. Trump will emphasize the importance of a strong and unified Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members include both Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Any agreement among the Gulf nations could be formalized at a Trump-hosted gathering at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, where the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord was first struck in the Carter administration, the administration officials said.
Beyond the Oval Office meeting with Trump, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, believed earlier this month to be possibly leaving the administration, will host a dinner for Prince Mohammed. The Saudi leader will also meet Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Labor Secretary Wilbur Ross, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick to replace Tillerson.
The high-profile tour and meetings with top officials across government signals a relationship between two nations that’s almost unrivaled since Trump took office in January 2017.
Traditional allies in London, Berlin and Ottawa have seen ties strained as the Republican president upends, or threatens to upend, historic trade and security agreements. Even South Korea, which has been at the center of Trump’s biggest foreign policy crisis — North Korea’s nuclear missile development — hasn’t been spared from criticism of its trade deal with the U.S.
But beyond some mild criticism of its role in the Qatar dispute and the Yemen war, relations with Saudi Arabia have only strengthened. Breaking with tradition, Trump even made his first foreign trip as president to Saudi Arabia last May.
Politics, Then Business
From Washington, the theme turns more to business than politics, with an itinerary that will take the crown prince from Washington to Boston, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston. More than $35 billion of deals could be announced during the trip, according to a National Security Council official.
That would follow a decision last week by Goldman Sachs Group Inc., an erstwhile adviser to companies and governments in the Middle East, to deploy its own money in Saudi Arabia for the first time. The Saudis also plan to build nuclear power plants, and Washington is encouraging them to enlist American companies for the project.
The political and investment news may help the crown prince distance himself from controversy following his decision to detain dozens of princes and members of the kingdom’s business elite late last year in what the government claimed was a crackdown on corruption.
In New York, he’ll host a forum for business executives and meet United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Saudi Arabia has come under harsh criticism at the UN for its lead role in the Yemen war and the resulting humanitarian disaster.
From the capital of U.S. finance, he’ll travel to the nation’s technology centers, meeting with philanthropic groups as well as leaders of companies including Google, Apple Inc., and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Finally, the crown prince will visit Saudi oil company Aramco’s research center in Houston on April 7 before returning to Riyadh.
Mohammed’s visit is probably not the last by a top Saudi leader this year. The country’s embassy in Washington said the crown prince’s extensive trip will lay groundwork for another visit later this year, by his father, King Salman.