Promoting the image of a new Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives Monday in Washington on a cross-country trip to court government officials, Silicon Valley technology companies, investors and one of his biggest fans: President Donald Trump.
He is a prince on a mission and in a hurry.
The 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne already has curried favor with the Trump administration, winning over the president and his family, and played a key role in restoring the desert kingdom to favored-ally status after years of tension under President Barack Obama
The prince will meet with Trump at the White House Tuesday and then is expected to travel over the next two weeks to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston and Houston, where he will confer with oil and energy executives.
Trump made his first overseas trip as president to Saudi Arabia last year, where he and the Saudi king, the crown prince’s father, signed agreements to fight terrorism, to counter Riyadh’s regional rival Iran and to plan billions of dollars in business deals, most of which have yet to materialize.
Mohammed is keen to take the next step: attracting American investment, business and expertise in an attempt to diversify and modernize a sclerotic economy that historically has relied on oil and foreign guest workers. He is promoting a development plan he calls Saudi Vision 2030.
The White House meeting comes after Mohammed’s vow to acquire nuclear weapons if Tehran is allowed to build them. Iran’s nuclear program was largely dismantled under a 2015 agreement, but Trump has threatened to scrap the deal it unless Iran and other signatories agree to numerous revisions.
That has raised fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, already one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Prince Mohammed is widely viewed as a reformer at home. But his actions are progressive only in the Saudi context of an ultra-conservative society that practices a rigid form of Islam.
He has led changes that will allow women to drive in the kingdom, that will reopen movie theaters and allow some foreign musicians to perform, and that have begun to permit more mixing between men and women at some public events.
He also has reined in the unpopular religious police, who enforce regulations, including attendance at prayers and strict public dress codes.
But numerous limitations remain. The social openings have benefited the growing number of Saudis ages 18 to 35, while maintaining restraints on political freedoms.
Last year, he ordered the detention of hundreds of wealthy businessmen, including members of the royal family. Many were confined for weeks to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh and were released only after they had agreed to turn over cash and shares in their companies.
While many Saudis welcomed the crackdown, others questioned whether the arrests were really a financial shakedown or an attempt to sideline the prince’s potential rivals for the throne.
Even as Mohammed promoted his anti-corruption drive and budget cuts, reports surfaced of his purchases of a $325 million, 440-foot yacht from a Russian vodka tycoon, a $450 million painting by Leonardo da Vinci and a $300 million chateau near Paris that has been called the world’s most expensive home.
More serious was his decision, as Saudi defense minister, to intervene in the civil war in neighboring Yemen in a military campaign that humanitarian groups say has led to widespread atrocities.
Instead of a quick victory, Saudi Arabia is mired in a war against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. Saudi airstrikes — some backed by U.S. intelligence and using U.S.-supplied munitions — have killed thousands of people, according to human rights groups, and have struck schools, medical facilities and other civilian targets.
Mohammed will find a warm welcome at the White House, however. He began working with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, soon after the 2016 election, and the two orchestrated Trump’s visit to the kingdom last year. Kushner’s recent loss of a top-secret security clearance may limit his role, however.
The prince’s Saudi Vision 2030 plan includes provisions to sell shares in the state oil monopoly, Saudi Aramco, and remake the kingdom into a hub of international business, finance and technology.
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