April 2, 2018, by Vivian Nereim
The phone call came at 8 p.m. from the Saudi royal court: Come to The Plaza, immediately.
We journalists rushed over to the Manhattan hotel, but it was almost three hours before anything happened. And when it did — when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Masayoshi Son, Softbank’s chief executive officer, wordlessly signed papers and declared that a “huge step in human history” had been taken — we had no idea what they were talking about. As the prince left, Son stood still for several long seconds before taking questions.
“What just happened?” I ventured.
The public signing of a Saudi plan to build a $200 billion solar facility was indeed historic. If successful, it will be the world’s largest solar-energy installation by a factor of 100. But no one told us what was going on as we sat on the floor (no chairs). It was just another day — or night — in the chaotic life of the hundreds of officials, business figures and communications consultants who are trailing the heir to the Saudi throne around the world as he tries to drum up investment and boost his country’s image. He’s in the middle of a three-week U.S. visit. After Washington, Boston and New York, the delegation headed to the West Coast for meetings with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the heads of Amazon, Apple, Google and Uber.
The trip got off to a madcap start when the Saudis applied at the last minute for more than 500 U.S. visas, according to a person familiar with the matter. As organizers weighed whether to allow media access to a gala dinner in Washington, I was invited, dis-invited and then re-invited.
At least three government entities, along with outside firms, are involved in coordinating press coverage of the visit but information has been scarce. Journalists gleaned the outline of the prince’s schedule -– when he would travel to different cities, who would accompany him and whom he would meet –- through rumors and anonymous sources.
Part of the tension appears to be over how much to publicize — and how much change the Saudi public can handle. While in New York, Prince Mohammed met with Pro-Israel leaders in the U.S., including from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Jewish Committee. But the participants were sworn to secrecy. Meanwhile, another meeting he held in New York, with religious figures including Roman Catholic clergy and two rabbis, was heralded by the Saudi embassy as inter-religious dialogue that “emphasized the common bond among all people, particularly people of faith.”
Asked about the unannounced meeting, one Saudi government representative didn’t respond while a second referred back to the press release about the interfaith gathering without further comment.
The prince is in a hurry to remake the once fiercely closed-off Islamic kingdom, diversifying its economy away from oil and loosening social restrictions even as he tightens his political grip over the authoritarian state. He’s famous for working long hours and late nights, as the glazed eyes of the employees arranging his trip can attest. He’d barely finished official visits to Egypt and the U.K. when he jetted to Washington.
Some chaos is inevitable on a trip of such scale. But it’s also a symptom of the growing pains Saudi Arabia is going through as its secretive government pledges more transparency — crucial in the lead-up to the initial public offering of as much as 5 percent of state oil company Saudi Aramco. For a society that has long valued discretion, a road show promoting openness is a bit of an alien concept.
The Saudi government has undeniably opened up during the past few years, issuing a slew of visas for foreign journalists and appointing spokesmen where none existed. In New York, Prince Mohammed met with reporters and editors at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, albeit mostly off the record.
“We have committed to increasing the level of transparency and accountability,” said Husameddin AlMadani, head of Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Performance Management, a government agency that measures progress on the targets set by the prince. “It helps investors. It helps think tanks and researchers.”
How that will play out is far from clear as officials lurch between traditional silence and promises of openness. The result is often a bizarre blend, a kind of twilight zone where something — it’s just not always clear what — is being announced. That’s what happened last week at the Plaza at midnight. As quickly as it started, the event was over. Reporters were left to meander past the closed bar and dishes of Saudi dates, observing a handful of delegates working into the morning hours.