April 20, 2018

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud's “Historical” Visit to the United States

 

Oleksiy Volovych

March 20 – April 7, 2018, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Muhammad bin Salman al-Saud made a unique in terms of the length and richness of various high-level meetings three-week tour of the USA. Some political analysts compare his visit with Soviet leader N. Khrushchev's two-week visit to America in September 1959.

This is the third visit of the Saudi Prince to the United States of America. The first two took place in June 2016 and in March 2017, when Mohammed bin Salman was the Deputy Crown Prince. For the third time he arrived in the status of the Crown Prince, being de facto the real ruler of Saudi Arabia. The main purpose of his trip was to seek the support of D. Trump's administration and American political elite in the implementation of socio-economic reforms in Saudi Arabia and its foreign policy. He also had to persuade skeptical Americans of the reality of plans for the modernization of the Saudi monarchy and confirm its leadership in the Middle East.

Negotiations with Donald Trump. March 20, during his meeting with D. Trump, Crown Prince Mohammed discussed military and security cooperation, as well as the issue of Saudi investments into the US economy. Even before the talks, D. Trump told about the conclusion of deals (worth 12.5 billion US dollars) in the military sphere, in addition to the agreements signed in May 2017 (worth 110 billion US dollars) as part of his first visit to the KSA. According to him, thanks to military contracts with the KSA, the United States will have 40 thousand additional jobs. Saudi Arabia will be supplied with the latest warships, missile defense systems, aircraft and infantry combat vehicles. Besides, the last year's agreement on the KSA's investment of 200 billion US dollars into the US economy within the next four years will be increased (within one year) up to 400 billion US dollars. This is such a significant amount that experts doubt the ability of even a powerful American economy to accommodate it within one year. The volume of trade between the USA and KSA in 2017 amounted to 36 billion US dollars. While China ranks second in terms of trade with KSA — at 35 billion US dollars per year, the Kingdom's share in Russia's foreign trade in 2017 amounted to about 0.2 % — 915.1 million US dollars. (for comparison: between Ukraine and KSA — 700.1 million US dollars).

During the visit, Crown Prince Mohammed also met and negotiated with many members of D. Trump's administration: US Vice President Mike Pence, new CIA Director Gina Haspel, newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US National Security Advisor John Bolton and Defense Secretary James Mattis. Crown Prince also met with Senior Advisor D. Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, former presidents George Bush Jr. and George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, former US Secretaries of State John Kerry, Condoleezza Rice, James Baker and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Special Envoy for the Middle East by Jason Greenblatt.

During his visit, the Crown Prince visited six cities — Boston, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston, where he met with executives of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Amazon, Walt Disney, Google, Apple, General Electric and Uber. Mohammed bin Salman met with many representatives of business circles interested in cooperating with Saudi Arabia, in particular with well-known financier Peter Thiel, American media magnates Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch. On space launch in the California Desert, he spoke on space travel with Richard Branson and Tesla's president Elon Musk. In Hollywood, Crown Prince met with representatives of the American film industry and actors Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Dwayne Johnson. In Seattle, he met with a businessman, philanthropist, one of Microsoft's founders Bill Gates, and also the founder of the Amazon.com, owner of the Blue Origin aerospace company and The Washington Post Jeff Bezos. Crown Prince Mohammed visited Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and even met with Oprah Winfrey, an American TV presenter, actress, producer and public figure, the first black billionaire in history, whose wealth is estimated at 3 billion US dollars. By the way, recently, the US media and social networks have been discussing the question of Oprah Winfrey's participation in the presidential election in 2020…

Cooperation in Oil and Gas Industry. While in the United States, Crown Prince Mohammed tried to draw US investors' attention to privatization of 5 % of shares in Saudi Aramco state oil company on the New York Stock Exchange. The Saudi Aramco's capitalization being estimated by the Saudi government at 2 trillion US dollars, the leadership of the KSA expects to get 100 billion US dollars for the 5 % of the company's shares, which will be used to create new jobs in Saudi Arabia. However, due to the weakened interest of American investors in Saudi Aramco and the underestimation by experts of its value, the KSA government decided to temporarily not open trading. Saudi Aramco being an enterprise that ensures the economic security of the KSA, the decision to privatize the company was ambiguously perceived by the Saudi society, including some members of the royal family.

According to some sources, D. Trump asked the Saudi Prince to agree to increase oil production quotas to cause a collapse of world oil  prices from the current 66 US dollars a barrel to at least 40, in order to weaken Russia's raw material economy, just like B. Obama concluded a secret deal with the Saudi King during his visit to Riyadh in April 2014 — exactly one month after the referendum on “joining” the Crimea to Russia. At that time, the agreement led to the fall of Brent crude oil prices from 115 US dollars a barrel in mid-2014 to 59 US dollars by the end of that year. However, it is unlikely that Riyadh will take this step right now, because as a result of low oil prices in recent years, the Saudi state budget deficit has reached 86 billion US dollars, and further lowering oil prices could lead to a default of the Saudi economy. But even if the Saudis do not agree to dramatically increase production and sale of oil again, oil production in the USA by the end of this year will reach 10 million barrels per day, which will lead to a drop in oil prices on the world market.

Interview with Crown Prince Mohammed. Probably of the greatest interest are Crown Prince Mohammed's numerous interviews, which he gave within 18 days of his visit to leading American media, in which he outlined his views on the further development of US-Saudi relations, on the situation in the Middle East and development of the Saudi society in the future.

Saudi Arabia's Modernization. In the tumultuous interview with TIME, speaking about plans for the modernization of his country, the Crown Prince pointed out that to date, Saudi Arabia has realized only 10 % of its capabilities, and still needs to realize 90 % of the potential.

Crown Prince Mohammed emphasized that the development of the Saudi economy should be based on the oil and gas industry, other mineral resources, transport, solar and wind energy. According to him, the country still spends about 230 billion US dollars a year outside Saudi Arabia, and if nothing is done, by 2030 this amount will have increased to 300–400 billion US dollars. So the task is to spend at least half of that amount on the domestic market. The Crown Prince also stressed that in terms of quality of education, his country ranks 41st, immediately after France, but he believes that in 10–12 years, the Kingdom can claim to rank in the first twenty by this indicator. To date, with its population of 33 million people, the KSA has about 10 million mostly foreign workers, and the Crown Prince hopes that their number will go up as job’s proposal increase both for Saudi citizens and for foreigners.

Answering the question about his legitimacy as heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed reminded that in June 2017 he received 31 out of 34 votes of the so-called “Allegiance Council” (the family council of the House of Saud, consisting of the sons of King Abdel Aziz, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). As for his team, Crown Prince Mohammed pointed out that it includes dozens of princes of his generation, working in 13 regions of the country, and also in different positions in different government departments.

The KSA-Israel. In his interview with well-known journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine, Crown Prince Mohammed made a number of interesting and very unexpected statements about the Saudi-Israeli relations. He became the first Saudi leader who, unlike his predecessors, recognized the “historical right of the Jewish people to live on the land of their ancestors — in Palestine”.

Answering the question about the relationship between the KSA and Israel, the Crown Prince emphasized that “both countries have a common enemy (Iran) and a lot of potential areas for economic cooperation”. However, according to him, relations between the two countries will get completely normalized only when the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is settled. At that, he never mentioned the right of the Palestinian Arabs to have their own country with the capital in Jerusalem. But this was “corrected” by his father — King Salman, who on April 2 had telephone talks with D. Trump. The Saudi monarch stressed the Kingdom's unchanging position on the Palestinian issue and the legitimacy of the rights of the Palestinian people to establish an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem. King Salman confirmed the inviolability of his position regarding the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict under the “two states for two peoples” scheme.

Crown Prince Mohammed with businessman
Jude Lloyd Blankfein

According to the Jewish Insider, on 27th March, Crown Prince Mohammed met with New York's leaders of the right American Jewish communities, in particular representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Anti-Defamation League (ADL), American Jewish Committee (AJC), as well as representatives of the B'nai B'rith (“Sons of the Covenant”), founded in 1843, which today has offices in 40 countries. In the opinion of some analysts, the cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia has a tendency to strengthen and expand. However, we think that it is unlikely that this “secret cooperation” will grow into allied relations in the near or even far future.

The Crown Prince on the Situation in Syria. Speaking about the Syrian tragedy, the Crown Prince absolutely unexpectedly assumed that “Bashar (Assad) is staying for now… and Syria has been part of the Russian influence in the Middle East for a very long time”. Recognizing the possibility of the “regime of Assad” further staying in power and even under the protection of Moscow means an overwhelming turn in the Syrian policy of Riyadh, which over the past seven years has not only demanded a change in the “regime of Assad” in Damascus, but also has been doing everything for it, spending billions of dollars in supporting Syrian armed opposition and US CIA's operations in Syria.

According to Crown Prince Muhammad, it will be better for Syria if B. Assad remains a puppet of Russia, not Iran, and it is unlikely that the USA will interfere with it, otherwise there would be a direct collision between the United States and Russia, which would create a danger to the whole world. However, Crown Prince Mohammed believes that US troops should stay in Syria at least in the medium term, firstly, in order to influence the outcome of peace talks, and secondly, to cut off the routes between Iran and Lebanese “Hezbollah”. The Crown Prince made this statement on March 30, a few hours after D. Trump had announced that the US troops would soon be withdrawn from Syria. This statement by D. Trump surprised his environment, who hurried, if not to disavow another unpredictable and unconfirmed statement by the head of the White House, then at least to “soften” and “interpret” it properly.

Iran As a Common Enemy. Perhaps, in his numerous interviews, Crown Prince Mohammed paid most attention to the “Iranian threat”. Two days before he met with D. Trump, he warned that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, then Saudi Arabia will be able to do the same very quickly. Against the background of reports about the upcoming sale of American reactors to the peaceful nuclear program of Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince's statement on the “Saudi atomic bomb” sound less and less unreal, especially if we take into consideration the KSA's intention to independently extract and enrich uranium in the Kingdom, where according to some estimates, about 5 % of such world deposits are located. However, Riyadh's possible intention to possess nuclear weapons is unlikely to have support and understanding in Washington and Jerusalem.

Crown Prince Mohammed said that “the ruling regime in Iran has seized state power in the country and is using it to spread its ideology around the world”. In his opinion, Iran is present in all the Middle Eastern countries where civil wars are continuing and instability is observed (Iraq, Syria, Yemen). At this, the Crown Prince for some reason does not take into consideration that Iran has normal relations with neighboring countries of the Persian Gulf, such as Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, as well as many other Middle Eastern countries. Iran has generally friendly and partnership relations with Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Central Asian countries and in fact all European countries, including Ukraine. It is easier to say with whom Iran has bad relations. With just 3 countries — the USA, the KSA and Israel.

Just before the visit to the United States, in his interview with the CBS TV channel, Crown Prince Mohammed said that Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was “worse than Hitler, because Hitler tried to conquer Europe, while Khamenei is trying to conquer the world”. In our opinion, Crown Prince Mohammed obviously overestimates Iran's and its leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's, ability and intentions “to conquer the world”. In his numerous statements on the Iranian issue, he called on the United States to stop Iran with the help of sanctions and other means of pressure. In his view, if this is not done, in 10–15 years there will be a great war in the Persian Gulf…

The Crown Prince on the KSA's Armed Forces. Crown Prince Mohammed argues that Iran cannot threaten Saudi Arabia, as it, so to speak, “Iran is not among the five largest economies in the Middle East, and its armed forces are not among the top five armies in the Middle East”. However, it should be noted that this statement of the Crown Prince does not quite correspond to reality. Let's try to prove it. If we measure the economic potential by GDP (by purchasing power parity), then according to the CIA World Factbook for 2017, the top five countries of the Middle East go in the following order: Turkey — 2.133 trillion US dollars; KSA — 1.789 trillion US dollars; Iran — 1.631 trillion US dollars; Egypt — 1.199 trillion US dollars and the UAE — 691 billion US dollars. With regard to the top five countries of the Middle East in terms of the military budget, according to SIPRI data for 2016, Saudi Arabia ranked first in the Middle East and fourth in the world: KSA — 63.6 billion US dollars; Israel — 18 billion US dollars; Turkey — 14.8 billion US dollars; Iran — 12.6 billion US dollars; Kuwait — 6.5 billion US dollars. However, as you know, the strength of the armed forces of any country is determined not only by the size of the military budget, but also by many other parameters. Thus, according to the Global Firepower, as of August 2017, the top five countries of the Middle East by the strength of the armed forces are as follows: Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Iran and the KSA. In general, these estimates coincide with the estimates of the Credit Suisse.

Crown Prince Mohammed rightly states that the Saudi armed forces, numbering 227,000 troops, have the most advanced weapons in the Middle East. However, the question arises: How effectively are they used? For example, in Yemen, the Saudi Arabia, leading the “Arab Coalition” of the 12 Arab countries, for the fourth consecutive year has unsuccessfully been conducting out combat actions against the poorly armed Yemeni Houthis rebels, who, moreover, regularly bombard Saudi territory with outdated Soviet “Skad” ballistic missiles modernized in Iran. In our opinion, no matter how powerful the armed forces are, but their use in civil war and partisan military operations will not be effective, moreover — their use leads to great losses among the civilian population, which is observed in Yemen, Syria or Libya. In civil wars, there can be no alternative to negotiating and finding compromises.

On the eve of Crown Prince Mohammed's meeting with D. Trump, The Hill, referring to its sources in the White House administration, said the United States intended to persuade the Crown Prince not to buy weapons from Russia (S-400 SAMs, “Kornet-EM” anti-tank missile systems, TOS-1A “Buratino” heavy flammable systems and AGS-30 grenade launchers) and to restrict cooperation in the energy sector in response to Moscow's “reckless policy in the Middle East and in Ukraine”.

The Crown Prince on the Situation in Yemen. In the aforementioned interview with The Atlantic, Crown Prince Mohammed said that the critical situation in Yemen did not arise in March 2015, when the “Arab coalition” launched hostilities there, but in the spring of 2014, when “a collapse of state institutions began in the country as a result of the coup, committed by the “Ansar Allah” Shiite rebellious Houthis movement against the legitimate government”. On the other hand, according to the Crown Prince, al-Qaeda tried to use the Yemeni crisis in its own interests and to promote its ideology. “Had we not started these actions in 2015, Yemen would have been divided between the Houthis and al-Qaeda”, Crown Prince Mohammed concludes. He believes that the policy of Saudi Arabia aims to assist the legitimate government (President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi — O. V.) in Yemen and achieve stability, while being the largest donor to Yemen. These statements by Crown Prince Mohammed sounded a few days after the Yemeni Houthis rebels on March 25 again launched ballistic missiles against the capital of Saudi Arabia — Riyadh. The firing of ballistic missiles in the Saudi territory is considered by the Crown Prince “a sign of weakness” of the Houthis. According to him, “they are trying to do all they can before they break”…

According to some US observers, D. Trump's administration does not have a special desire to “seriously” intervene in the Yemeni crisis. During the talks in Washington, Crown Prince Mohammed was advised not to stop seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict in order to avoid a massive humanitarian crisis, the responsibility for which the international community puts on the United States as a strategic ally of Saudi Arabia. In this regard, Washington is in fact solidariating with the position of the UAE — the KSA's main ally in the “Arab Coalition”, which proposes to negotiate with the Houthis, who now control most of the territory of Yemen and its capital, Sana’a. Washington's and Abu Dhabi's ideas about negotiations with Houthis cause Riyadh's hidden irritation, since they actually bring to nought the entire policy of the KSA in Yemen, to implement which a lot of money and diplomatic, economic and military efforts have been wasted.

March 28, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed met with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres at UN headquarters in New York, where he discussed the situation in the Middle East, in particular in Syria and Yemen. During the talks, the UN Secretary General pointed out with gratitude the Saudi Arabia's notable contribution worth 1 billion US dollars to “mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen”.

It should be noted that the UN had previously reported the death of about 10,000 Yemenis and the destruction of about 80 % of the Yemeni infrastructure in the three years of the led by the KSA “Arab Coalition”'s combat actions against the Yemeni rebels — Houthis.

 

Conclusions

In our opinion, the main goal of the nearly three-week tour of Crown Prince Mohammed in the United States was his attempt to change the Americans' popular opinion about the KSA as a conservative theocratic monarchy, very far from western democracy, and to let understand, first of all to representatives of the American establishment, that under his actual ruling, Saudi Arabia is already undergoing profound socio-economic reforms that can bring Saudi society closer to the American one, and he is America's friend. Indeed, during his many-day visit, Crown Prince Muhammad managed to position himself as a modern leader and modernist — a kind of “Saudi Peter I”, who differs greatly from his predecessors — conservative monarchs of past generations.

The Saudi Crown Prince's large-scale and even “historic” visit to the United States has again confirmed the fact that the leadership of the KSA, which from time to time conducts negotiations with Moscow on cooperation in energy and military spheres, seems to do so only to benefit in bargaining with Americans. The Crown Prince's visit to the United States will undoubtedly contribute to further strengthening and expanding political, military and economic cooperation between the two countries and consolidate the traditional pro-American course of Saudi Arabia.

We believe that the KSA's current unofficial rapprochement with Israel is temporary and tactical, which is explained by the desire of Crown Prince Mohammed to secure Washington's support in his advancement to the royal throne, while overcoming the opposition of some representatives of the House of Saud. But given the youth of Crown Prince Muhammad (32 years old), he can be on the throne for several decades, during which the United States will change more than one president, and Washington's foreign policy will also change. Therefore, it is unlikely that Jerusalem and Riyadh will become allies in the nearest or far future. Most likely, the format of coexistence and interaction on certain aspects in separate periods of time will be established between them.

In our view, the demonization of the Iranian regime by the leadership of the United States and the KSA is largely irrational and unjustified, which not only further aggravates the already complicated military-political situation in the Middle East, but also weakens the positions of the two countries in that region. Probably the anti-Iran policy of the official Washington is largely shaped under the influence of the American military-industrial complex, whose main objective is to sell as many armaments and military equipment as possible to the solvent Arab monarchy of the Gulf and, above all, to Saudi Arabia. However, it is unlikely that the administration of D. Trump will resort to a large-scale war against Iran, because, according to the plans of American strategists, this country should act as a long-term “scarecrow” for the Arab Gulf countries, which would allow to continue to sell them bulks of modern weapons, getting incredible profits for American military-industrial complex and create jobs for American citizens.

If US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo managed to hold sensational secret talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about his possible meeting with the US President in early April, why can't Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have “historical meetings” with Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei? Why can't they meet with the legitimate leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad? Why can't they move from the pressure on the leaders of Iran and Syria to dialogue with them in order to reach a compromise and to solve security problems in the USA's and KSA's relations with these countries? Why should the Crown Prince Mohammed not hold talks with his “brother” — Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Khalifa al-Thani, with whom he had a warm relationship until recently? Why would the US and Russian Presidents not meet more often to resolve the accumulated international problems, including Russia's aggression in Ukraine? After all, when world leaders negotiate and achieve at least a limited understanding, they thereby save hundreds of thousands of lives of ordinary citizens who perish in local conflicts, including because of the excessive ambitions of those leaders, who rely only on their own strength. And, as we know, where absolute power reigns, there is almost no room for reason, that is, according to the proverb: “brawn instead of brain”…