The White House announced this week that US President Donald Trump will receive on Tuesday Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman — dubbed in the US media “MBS”— the de facto leader of the old rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Bin Salman visit to Washington is the third leg of an international diplomatic offensive that started two weeks ago in Cairo for three days, and then took the powerful Saudi crown prince to the UK for another three days, where he was greeted by Queen Elizabeth II and received for talks with UK Prime Minister Theresa May before heading back to Riyadh Saturday ahead of his trip to the US that will start Monday.
Unlike the exceptionally warm welcome that was afforded him in Egypt, Bin Salman was received in the UK with protests against his country’s military intervention in Yemen, blamed by the UN and leading humanitarian bodies around the world for being the main cause of civilian casualties and for leaving over 20 million people in the poor southern neighbour of Saudi Arabia dependent on food aid.
In the US, according to accounts offered towards the end of this week by leading US broadsheets, Bin Salman will be met with two possible harsh bills that will be presented to the Senate, to stop the sale of US precision munitions to Saudi Arabia, and the withdrawal of US forces from hostilities in Yemen to protest the humanitarian crisis.
A similar bill was narrowly escaped in June last year upon what an Arab diplomat who was in the US capital at the time said was “extensive pressure that the Saudis with the help of the UAE, Egypt and other regional players exercised”.
“Yemen is a big headache for the international public relations campaign that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is trying to conduct towards his eventual ascent to power in Riyadh.
However, when he was [in Cairo] he discussed with President [Abdel-Fattah] Al-Sisi some ideas to find an exit out of the complicated situation there,” said an informed Egyptian government official.
The official said that the plan to end the war on Yemen is still being discussed, but the basic ideas are there: a political agreement that would include a certain faction of the Saudi-opposed and Iran-supported Houthis in a power-sharing arrangement that might be similar to that which ended the 15-year civil war in Lebanon.
“It is still too early to announce anything at this moment because the Saudis are still not fully determined; they want complaints about the humanitarian situation in Yemen out of the way, but they are not sure they want to settle for a situation whereby their archenemy, Iran, would be afforded any presence, even though relations between Tehran and the Houthis are not as close as relations between Tehran and Hizbullah in Lebanon,” the same official said.
Reducing the influence of Hizbullah in Lebanon was something that Mohamed bin Salman discussed in Cairo and London, though without concluding a plan. In press statements issued following talks with the UK prime minister, it was openly stated that both countries discussed ways to free the Lebanese government from the influence of Hizbullah.
Scaling down the power of Hizbullah will certainly be a top agenda item for Bin Salman in talks with Trump next Tuesday.
“Clearly, Hizbullah is essentially about Iran, and Trump is willing to dedicate interest to the issue, especially that the visit of Bin Salman to Washington is coming shortly after a visit by [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu to the US where Iran was the top issue,” said a regional diplomat based in Cairo.
He added that for the most part decreasing the power of Iran is about increasing the power of other parties, and for this purpose Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri might be getting a new lease of aid during the Paris meeting.
The same diplomat said that as much as Israel would like to see the end of Hizbullah in Lebanon, it is not immediately willing to act against the group, given its role against radical militant Sunni groups in Syria.
“It is not as essential now for the support of Bashar [Al-Assad] because Russia is there to stay, but still it is important for certain operations on the ground,” he said.
The US, this diplomat said, will not go beyond the lines agreed on between Trump and Netanyahu when it comes to Hizbullah in particular, but there is room for discussion with the Saudi crown prince on reducing the influence of Iran in the region.
Meanwhile, an informed Washington-based Arab diplomat said he did not expect the Trump-MBS talks to produce a new lavish arms deal. The US president already signed a very expansive deal with the Saudis during his visit to the kingdom last year.
“There are economic and military deals that have been agreed to by the two countries to follow up on, but this visit is really about the politics of the region, especially the possible conclusion of a US plan to restart Palestinian-Israeli talks.
Nobody is sure whether this plan will come out soon and whether it will work, but for all practical purposes Mohamed bin Salman would like to come across as a partner in shaping this deal and getting the Palestinians to agree to join it, despite their reluctance,” said the Washington-based diplomat.
According to the Egyptian official, this matter was discussed when Bin Salman was in Cairo, and both Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are trying to “encourage” a highly reluctant Palestinian leader to join the game and see what it would produce.
However, according to the regional diplomat, it seems clear by the outright rejection of the Palestinian Authority to join a US conference on the humanitarian situation in Gaza that President Mahmoud Abbas is not opening up to the idea, “despite his attempt to avert a confrontation with Egypt, the Saudis and the Emirates on the matter”.
Diplomats who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly agreed that the key thing for Bin Salman is to show the world that he is a political leader who could bring change to the region, as to his country. They agreed that the message Bin Salman is sending through his trips is that he can make political as well as military deals.
Mohamed Bin Salman granted to CBS his first interview on US TV, which is scheduled to be aired shortly before the crown prince arrives to the US next week.
In statements published in the US press Tuesday, “60 Minutes” anchor Norah O’Donnell said that the Saudis are opening up and they want the world to see that.
However, according to the Washington-based diplomat, this is not necessarily the impression of everyone in the US capital.
“Some have faith that Mohamed bin Salman could continue with his reforms while others have questions, given the issue that some in the ruling family take with his role, and some within the circles of the influential Muslim clergy take with his reforms.
So, it is an open question still, but maybe this coming visit would help with an answer,” he said.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly