US President Barack Obama hosts youthful Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on Friday, underscoring his guest’s meteoric rise and increasingly pivotal role in strained US-Saudi ties.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama would meet the 30-year-old deputy crown prince, who has become the driving force behind economic reform and a more activist Saudi foreign policy.
King Salman’s son, who is his country’s defense minister, 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, defence and treasury, as well as leading members of Congress.
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The White House said Prince Mohammed’s meeting with Obama will take place in the Oval Office – a rare honour 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,” he said.
For the White House, Mohammed bin Salman is a relative unknown, while Mohammed bin Nayef — as interior minister –has been the go-to royal on counterterrorism for years. Prince Mohammed “wants to be known on the US 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 recognised.” The meeting comes as ties between the US and Saudi Arabia have been strained over how to approach Riyadh’s arch-enemy Iran, the war in Yemen and the seemingly imminent release of a dossier about Saudi Arabian links to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
High on the agenda 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 US ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith.
Amid disagreements over the US 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 US 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.”