March 19, 2018
IntelBrief: The Crown Prince’s Visit to the U.S.
The visit of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, to the United States on March 19 comes at a time of significant change and tension in both Saudi Arabia and the United States. President Trump plans to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with the current director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, in part because the latter did not support President Trump’s hard-line against Iran – a hard-line Saudi Arabia very much supports. How a shake-up in President Trump’s cabinet will alter relations between the two countries remains to be seen. The two leaders are meeting for the third time, with this being Mohammad bin Salman’s first visit to the U.S. since President Trump took office. Amid reports that President Trump is also considering replacing National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, the meeting between the two leaders comes with more ‘palace intrigue’ in Washington than usual.
There is no lack of similar intrigue and tension in the Kingdom, even as the Saudi Crown Prince solidifies his hold on the levers of power in the Kingdom. In late February, in his capacity as Minister of Defense, bin Salman replaced General Abdulrahman al-Banyan, the chief of the joint staff of Saudi Arabia's armed forces, with Lieutenant General Fahd bin Turki. He also appointed a new chief of staff, Gen. Fayyad al-Ruwaili. The war in Yemen is seen as bin Salman’s war. It is a disastrous stalemate for Saudi Arabia and a disaster for Yemen’s civilians. Despite enormous arms sales—much from the U.S., as well as the United Kingdom—the Saudi military has not performed well in the Yemen campaign, which has devolved into an air war against a foe without an air force.
The Crown Prince’s high-profile anti-corruption purge is one of his signature domestic moves as he seeks to both modernize the economy–which has suffered from corruption that the Crown Prince has made a priority to counter–and to remove potential political opponents. The arrests of hundreds of prominent businessmen in Saudi Arabia has produced mixed results; the Kingdom said in January that the country had reached settlements totaling $106 billion in revenue to the government, a significant amount, though in fact the cash received was far lower, given the difficulties in seizing liquid assets kept out of the country. On March 11, the New York Times reported that some of those detained in the anti-corruption arrests were subjected to harsh treatment and even torture, a charge the government categorically denies.
The Saudi policy of confronting Iran in practically every country in the Middle East aligns closely with President Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric, and even more so with Pompeo’s. The U.S. is providing not only arms for sale, but close support to the Saudi air campaign in Yemen. This support has come under congressional focus recently, as members of Congress are exploring the U.S. role in civilian casualties by inaccurate air strikes. CENTCOM Cmdr. Gen. Joseph Votel told a Senate hearing on March 13 that the U.S. should continue its assistance in refueling Saudi and Emirati flights; the U.S. is actually helping them improve their targeting capabilities and reduce civilian casualties, he argued, which would spike if the U.S. pulled support.
President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammad will likely discuss Riyadh’s plan for nuclear power in the Kingdom. During an interview with CBS that aired on March 15, Crown Prince Mohammad said, ‘Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.’ The comments come as the U.S., along with countries including France, Russia, China, and South Korea, are bidding to help build Saudi Arabia’s first two nuclear power plants, a massive contract that also has massive geopolitical implications. Multiple congressional members, along with the Prime Minister of Israel, have voiced deep concerns about the U.S. striking a nuclear deal with Saudi that does not prohibit them from enriching and reprocessing of uranium. Letting the deal go through without the prohibitions would be potentially disastrous; the U.S. does not want a repeat of what happened in Iraq, when, in the name of countering Iran, the U.S. gave into a number of Saddam Hussein’s demands for, among other things, chemical weapons. The Saudis have recently engaged multiple lobbyists in Washington to help negotiate nuclear agreement terms in their favor.
Last year, a number of families who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks sued Saudi Arabia in a New York District Court after Congress passed legislation that removed some aspects of sovereign immunity for the Saudi government. The families were once again in court in January of this year; it is likely this topic will come up between President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammad on this trip.
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