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C. P. Mohammed bin Salman’s US Visit

March 15, 2018

C. P. Mohammed bin Salman’s US Visit

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is set to meet with United States President Donald Trump at the White House on March 20. The American visit, which will begin on March 19 and conclude on March 22, comes along a trip by the Saudi royal to Egypt, and the United Kingdom in recent weeks. During his time in the U.S., Mohammed bin Salman will visit New York and Boston, in addition to Washington, DC. He is also expected to visit France soon.

In his latest diplomatic initiative, Mohammed bin Salman’s first visit was in Egypt, where he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi and Coptic Pope Tawadros. The visit with the Coptic leader was in part an attempt to disassociate the Kingdom from its reputation of ties with radical streams of Islam. The Crown Prince also visited development projects and new residential areas along the Suez Canal.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s London visit commenced in early March on the heels of his Egyptian visit. The trip had initially been postponed earlier in the month, potentially over concerns about protests by activists, who rebuke Riyadh for its human rights record, particularly in the ongoing war in Yemen. Before embarking on his rescheduled trip, the crown prince fired a number of high-ranking security officials, including Chief of Staff General Abdul Rahman bin Saleh al Bunyan (to be replaced by Fayyad al Ruwaili, commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force). Bin Salman also removed the heads of the Saudi air defense and ground forces.

The sudden turnover in the Saudi top brass is not the only major leadership shakeup Mohammed bin Salman has initiated in recent months. Late last year, the Saudi crown prince imprisoned a number of his fellow royals in the Ritz Carlton Riyadh hotel. The last remaining Ritz Carlton detainees were released at the end of January and the hotel resumed normal business operations in February.

In early March in London, Mohammed bin Salman met with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and Queen Elizabeth. Based on bin Salman’s meetings with May, the two leaders agreed to aim for 65 billion GBP ($90.29 billion USD) in trade and investment deals in the upcoming years, including Saudi foreign direct investment in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister May discussed human rights issues with the Saudi crown prince, offering some praise for reforms undertaken in his tenure. Nevertheless, bin Salman’s visit still faced scrutiny from some, including opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who criticized London’s military support for Saudi Arabia and recommended terminating arms sales to the Kingdom.

During his recent travels, the Saudi crown prince recorded a television interview with American station CBS. In the interview Bin Salman sharply criticized Riyadh’s primary regional rival, the Islamic Republic of Iran, comparing Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to German dictator Adolf Hitler and claimed that Tehran has expansionist ambitions in the Middle East. Presently, Saudi Arabia and Iran are supporting opposing sides in a number of local armed conflicts, including in Yemen and Syria.

Notably, in his television interview, Mohammed bin Salman suggested that Saudi Arabia could develop nuclear weapons if Iran did. The remark comes alongside Riyadh’s decision to approve a national policy for the Saudi atomic energy program. The policy sets out regulatory standards for nuclear facilities and calls for the construction of sixteen nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia over the course of the next two decades, a task which will cost the Kingdom about $80 billion USD.

Saudi Arabia is currently looking to award a contract for the development of the country’s first two nuclear power plants. The Kingdom has surveyed options among firms from Russia, China, France, South Korea, and the United States. In particular, Riyadh is interested in the American firm Westinghouse, which is presently bankrupt and could itself be bought out by Canadian conglomerate Brookfield. Recently, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry met with Mohammed bin Salman in London to discuss a potential nuclear cooperation agreement. A deal between Washington and Riyadh would allow Westinghouse and other U.S. companies to participate in the Saudi nuclear program. If a deal is not approved, a country with less stringent proliferation guidelines, such as Russia or China, could fill the role. The Kingdom also holds significant leverage with regards to the ARAMCO IPO role out, planned for 2019. China remains a front-runner for the proposed 5% stake in the Saudi state owned oil conglomerate.

Although Saudi Arabia’s official stance on nuclear development is to develop atomic energy to diversify the oil-based economy and restrict projects to peaceful civilian purposes, some American policymakers fear that official collaboration with the Saudi program could lead to or accelerate the Kingdom’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Such concerns could be amplified by Mohammed bin Salman’s more recent comments about developing a nuclear arsenal in response to an Iranian atomic weapons program.

 

Evan Gottesman for iStrategic International