Dangers from Iran will dominate Saudi crown prince’s talks with Trump

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is scheduled to meet Trump on Tuesday to discuss ways to strengthen ties between the two countries. (AFP/File)
Updated 19 March 2018
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Dangers from Iran will dominate Saudi crown prince’s talks with Trump

WASHINGTON: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was due in Washington Monday for talks with US President Donald Trump that are likely to be dominated by concern over Iran’s spreading regional influence and its ongoing nuclear program.
A host of other policy issues are expected to be on the agenda, including the Saudi and UAE-led boycott of Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s plans for nuclear energy and the Trump administration’s faltering efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The crown prince is scheduled to meet Trump on Tuesday to discuss ways to strengthen ties between the two countries, according to the White House.
The visit is being seen as a chance for the relatively new administration in Washington and the crown prince, who has been heir to the throne for less than a year, to get to know each other better. Trump, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, forged close personal relationships with the crown prince when the US president visited Saudi Arabia in May. That helped cement a close alliance between the two countries.
Nonetheless, American officials are keen to learn more about the crown prince’s inner circle, and to meet the advisers and aides who they believe will play a critical role in the implementation of social and economic reforms in Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom’s more muscular foreign policy.
“Mohammad bin Salman has started a hugely positive cultural reform program in Saudi Arabia, particularly the theological struggle to return the Kingdom to its roots in moderate Islam,” said Jim Smith, who served as the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia between 2009 and 2013.
“Winning that war of ideas, and succeeding in the other major policy challenges, depends not only on the crown prince’s leadership but also on how good the team he has assembled around him is, and how strong the institutions they build together are.
“That is something of an unknown at the moment and the US government will be keen to sound that out,” Smith said.
There is a groundswell of optimism in Washington around the crown prince’s rising power, and much of the domestic and foreign policy agenda he has staked out. The US is keen to see cultural liberalization and market-orientated economic reforms in Saudi Arabia and, under Trump, shares Riyadh’s deep concern over Iran.
But the US foreign policy establishment also wants to find out more about the crown prince’s anti-corruption campaign and has some concerns about some of Riyadh’s external policies, including the war in Yemen and the dispute with Qatar, something that Washington wants to see quickly resolved.
The crown prince’s arrival comes at a time of deep political uncertainty in the US, with a recent election defeat for the Republicans in Pennsylvania, a series of sackings and resignations of senior officials and persistent rumors that more are in the offing. In addition, a probe into Russian meddling in the US presidential election rumbles on, and appears to be circling ever closer to the White House.
Trump has proven to be an unpredictable and impulsive president, particularly on foreign policy issues. He angered Arab allies in December when he announced the relocation of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, giving up a key regional bargaining chip without winning any concessions from the Israelis in return.
Kushner, the foreign policy adviser who is a bridge between the US and Saudi administrations, recently had his security clearance at the White House downgraded, raising questions about how much of a role he will be able to play in the upcoming talks.
While the White House is chaotic, the US State Department, which traditionally manages US-Saudi ties, is in complete disarray. Trump recently sacked his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, after a 13-month stint which left the US foreign service at a historically low ebb, understaffed and suffering low morale.
The Saudi delegation will not miss Tillerson, who’s unpopularity within the US foreign service was matched only by his unpopularity in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, where he was seen as soft in Iran and unsupportive of their boycott of Qatar over Doha’s links to extremist groups.
Former CIA director Mike Pompeo has been named as Tillerson’s likely successor, but he has to go through a system of congressional approval that means he will not take up his post during the Saudi visit. Pompeo shares the crown prince’s attitude that Iran must be confronted with a more aggressive strategy.
In the meantime, Trump seems likely to continue his management of foreign affairs through Kushner rather than the machinery of the State Department.
More than a year after taking over the White House, he has yet to appoint a US ambassador to Saudi Arabia or to name an assistant secretary for the Middle East, traditionally key figures involved in maintaining US-Saudi ties.
Those vacancies remain a concern to foreign policy experts in Washington, who fear that Trump and Kushner, both New York City real estate traders, lack the experience and knowledge to manage complex foreign policy issues.
“It is frankly irresponsible not to have those key positions filled. The US-Saudi relationship is much too important to neglect in that way,” Smith, the former US ambassador to Riyadh, said.


Saudi Arabia urges UN Security Council to disarm Houthis after drone attacks

Updated 20 May 2019
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Saudi Arabia urges UN Security Council to disarm Houthis after drone attacks

  • Saudi UN ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi says 'seven explosive drones'

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia has warned that recent drone attacks against its oil pumping stations by Yemen's Houthi militants will jeopardize UN peace efforts in the country and lead to further escalation in the region.
The Saudi UN ambassador, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, said "seven explosive drones" directed by the militants attacked pumping stations on Tuesday in the cities of Dawadmi and Afif "on the east-west oil pipeline that transfers Saudi oil to Yanbu port and to the rest of the world."
He urged Security Council members in a letter circulated Monday "to disarm this terrorist militia in order to prevent the escalation of these attacks which increase regional tensions and raise the risks of a broader regional confrontation."