U.S. President Barack Obama hosted youthful Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud at the White House Friday, underscoring his guest’s meteoric rise and increasingly pivotal role in managing strained U.S.-Saudi ties.
The 30-year-old deputy crown prince – who has become the driving force behind economic reform and a more activist Saudi foreign policy – swept into the West Wing with a band of aides.
Mohammed bin Salman is the King’s son and the country’s defense minister, but he has met the very biggest of Washington’s big hitters during a week-long visit.
He held talks with the CIA director, the secretaries of state, defense and treasury, as well as leading members of Congress.
The White House said Prince Mohammed’s meeting with Obama will take place in the Oval Office – a rare honor for a non-head of state, one not afforded to the Dalai Lama earlier in the week.
Little is certain about the inner workings of the House of Saud, but the prince’s high public profile has led many to speculate that he could be the next on the throne, rather than designated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
“He is notionally number three in the hierarchy, but effectively he’s number one,” said Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute, a think tank focused on the Middle East.
“The King prefers his son and wants his son to be king,” said Henderson.
For the White House, Mohammed bin Salman is a relative unknown, while Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s first deputy prime minister and interior minister, has been the go-to royal on counterterrorism for years.
Prince Mohammed “wants to be known on the U.S. side,” said Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. “It’s an effort by him to be recognized.”
The meeting comes as ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are strained over how to approach Riyadh’s arch-enemy Iran, the war in Yemen and the seemingly imminent release of a U.S. dossier about Saudi Arabian links to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
– Economic reform –
High on the agenda of the meeting will be Prince Mohammed’s efforts to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s state-dominated and oil-dependent economy, bringing in the private sector and creating jobs for the country’s young population.
“Given their huge investment in education over the last decade, if they are not able to move away from a state-run economy and develop a private sector, you are not going to have the jobs that young people need to have hope,” said former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith.
Amid disagreements over the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, economic reform appears to be a much-needed issue that could bring Riyadh and Washington together.
Obama’s White House has repeatedly argued that Saudi Arabia’s most pressing security task is internal reform to put the autocratic state on a more stable and sustainable footing.
Effectively reforming the economy is likely to require the easing of tough rules on female participation in the workplace.
After Prince Mohammed met top U.S. economic policymakers on Wednesday, including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the White House “underscored the United States’ desire to be a key partner in helping Saudi Arabia implement its ambitious economic reform program.”
Prince Mohammed is also sure to address another of his signature policies – Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has been a point of deep contention between the White House and the royal court.
The United States has aided and publicly backed the operation to push back against Iranian-backed Huthi rebels who took over the capital Sanaa.
The war signaled Saudi Arabia’s willingness to tackle Iranian influence in the region.
But Obama’s administration has been repeatedly embarrassed by the killing of civilians and worried that while the war has dragged on, Al-Qaeda has been allowed to grow.
More than 6,400 Yemenis have been killed since the intervention started 15 months ago, the majority of them civilians.
The Huthis remain in control of most of the central and northern highlands as well as the Red Sea coast.
The United Nations had blacklisted the Saudi-led coalition after concluding in a report that it was responsible for 60 percent of the 785 deaths of children in Yemen last year.
But the world body later reversed its stance, with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon citing “undue pressure” from Saudi Arabia and its allies who had threatened to cut off funding to U.N. aid programs over the blacklisting.
There are signs that the war may be winding down and Saudi Arabia and its allies may be shifting focus to tackling Al-Qaeda.
The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday announced its “war is over” in Yemen, although left open the possibility of a continued counter-terrorism role.