WASHINGTON – Today, March 19, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) arrives in Washington for the start of a two-week tour of the United States. His trip coincides with a Congressional push to end US support for the war in Yemen, considerable criticism of the Trump-Saudi relationship within policy circles, and questions about whether the US-Saudi strategic partnership, historically built on the premise of trading American military might for Saudi oil, has become an anachronism.
Within the context of these debates, fueled, in part, by intense political polarization in Washington, MBS’s visit is likely to emphasize economics over politics. This approach, if successful, will expand the scope and value of a 75-year-old partnership, which has always been bigger than oil-for-security.
Much of what the crown prince hopes to achieve will take place outside of Washington. After just three days in the capital, he will travel to New York, Boston, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and Houston. In these cities, MBS’s primary goal will be to cultivate, expand, and deepen ties with leading US financial, technology, entertainment, and energy companies in order to advance Saudi’s economic development and diversification plan, as laid out by Vision 2030.
In terms of the Washington agenda, there is a real opportunity for progress on a nuclear power agreement that benefits both parties. Signing an accord which, like the Iran deal (JCPOA), does not require Riyadh to waive its uranium enrichment rights, would help the US check Russian inroads into the Kingdom’s energy market and boost its flagging nuclear power industry while allowing Saudi to exploit its considerable uranium deposits and conserve oil for export. Following this deal with a Subsequent Arrangement that enables Riyadh to begin enriching uranium just as key JCPOA “sunset provisions” expire, would also give Iran added incentive to restrict its nuclear program to peaceful civilian applications.
New deals in business or energy would expand on a relationship that has produced wide-ranging political and economic benefits for the US since 1945. During the Cold War, for example, Riyadh helped Washington topple the Soviet Empire by crashing oil prices (severely straining Moscow’s petroleum-dependent economy in the mid-1980s) and by matching CIA funding for the Afghan resistance dollar-for-dollar.
More recently, the horror of the September 11th attacks and the shocking discovery that Saudi citizens were involved, greatly embarrassed the Kingdom but also awoke its leadership to the threat posed by jihadi terrorism. In the years which followed, Saudi Arabia fought a vicious war against Al Qaeda and went after its sources of funding. The crown prince’s 2017 crackdown on religious extremism is vigorously expanding that fight into the realm of radical ideas.
Today, even as the US reduces its dependence on oil imports, America’s robust military presence in the Persian Gulf safeguards the energy supplies of key European and Asian allies while giving Washington considerable influence over China’s energy lifeline. By continuing to insist on pricing oil in dollars despite Russian and Chinese pressure, Saudi has also helped maintain the greenback as the world’s reserve currency, reducing US Treasury borrowing costs.
This is not to say the relationship is without its difficulties. Within the corridors of Washington, the Kingdom has become a partisan football, chastised by many for its efforts to cultivate a close relationship with the Trump Administration despite the fact that, as the US’s junior partner, Riyadh has had little choice but to court every American president since Roosevelt.
The polarized political environment and US-Saudi variance, in terms of how best to approach the Yemen war, the Qatar crisis, and Israel-Palestine, has made a major breakthrough on any one of these issues unlikely.
Riyadh continues to see Yemen as “a war of necessity” preventing Iran-backed Houthi militias from becoming a new Hezbollah on the Kingdom’s southern border; the conflict will persist as long as the Houthis refuse a political settlement, as they did just last month. Despite some Congressional pushback, US “support” for the Saudi-led coalition is more symbolic than substantive, limited to midair refueling of Emirati jets and intelligence-sharing. If necessary, Riyadh could substitute the refueling services, but Washington’s intelligence-sharing has helped to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage. Saudi will deliver aid for as long as the war continues but ending intelligence-sharing now only risks worsening the humanitarian situation.
For Riyadh, the Qatar embargo, a last attempt to undo two decades of Doha’s subverting its security, remains a sideshow. Judging by the alacrity with which Qatar is attempting to undo it, the embargo is clearly having a painful impact while costing Saudi, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain little. Consequently, none of the Arab Quartet seems very interested in US involvement or mediation.
As to the much-vaunted Israel-Palestine peace deal, Saudi leaders explicitly warned the Trump administration that relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem would make any progress on the president’s proposed accord nearly impossible.
The crown prince’s trip reflects all of the promise and complexities of a multi-faceted relationship that has endured since the Second World War. Should his visit yield new economic or energy ties, it will further expand the US-Saudi partnership, even if little progress is made on the policy front.