May 23, 2018

Trump Greets Visiting Saudi Prince With a Crowded Agenda.

President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman shaking hands last year in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington. Photo: nicholas kamm/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.

Both countries tout this week’s meetings as reflection of growing ties between Washington and Riyadh

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump welcomed Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the Oval Office on Tuesday by showcasing photographs of tanks and helicopters that the U.S. has sold the Middle East kingdom to help it build up its military muscle.

Across town, senators debating a contentious proposal meant to curb American military support for Saudi Arabia were shown a sobering image of a Yemeni toddler injured by an airstrike, one victim of Riyadh’s protracted war against Iran-backed militants.

The dissonant images captured the state of relations between Washington and Riyadh as the two countries confront obstacles to their efforts to strengthen ties and agree on new steps to counter Iran.

The White House meeting marked the start of Prince Mohammed’s 2½-week visit to the U.S., where he is looking to win more political, diplomatic, military and economic support from Washington.

The 32-year-old Saudi royal has positioned himself as a reformer who has moved to ease widely criticized restrictions on women, clamp down on religious extremism, and promote a more liberal social agenda.

The Trump administration has strongly backed those moves as it tries to make U.S.-Saudi relations a cornerstone of its Middle East strategy. U.S. officials have said Prince Mohammed’s reform agenda will be key to the country’s efforts to draw more investment as it overhauls its oil-based economy.

“The relationship now is probably as good as it’s really ever been, and I think will probably only get better,” Mr. Trump said before the meeting. “We understand each other. Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world, there’s nobody even close.”

Mr. Trump lauded Saudi Arabia’s decision to buy billions in U.S. military equipment and expressed hope that Riyadh would spend billions more on America’s defense industry.

But the visit is being shadowed by the kingdom’s foreign-policy moves, including its war in Yemen, where the United Nations says thousands of civilians have been killed by Saudi-led airstrikes.

Lawmakers raised concerns about the war with Prince Mohammed before he met with Mr. Trump, said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.).

“We strongly, strongly pushed back on what is happening right now in Yemen and asked them to take strong corrective actions,” Mr. Corker said during the Senate floor debate.

In meetings with U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday, Saudi officials defended their campaign in Yemen and framed it as part of the country’s protracted battle with Iran.

Iran is backing Yemen’s Houthi militants, who have fired ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, creating increasing concerns about the flow of advanced weapons into the country.

The U.S. provides Saudi Arabia with precision-guided weapons being used in Yemen. American planes refuel the jets that carry out the airstrikes. And American military officials advise the Saudis on ways to try to reduce civilian casualties.

Sens. Mike Lee, (R., Utah), Bernie Sanders, (I-Vermont), and Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.), joined forces to push a resolution meant to cut off the U.S. support by arguing that America shouldn’t provide help without explicit support from Congress.

The Pentagon strongly opposed the proposal, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with Republican lawmakers before the vote to personally urge them to reject the resolution. After hours of debate, the Senate voted to shelve the measure on a procedural move.

While lawmakers argued over the proposal, Mr. Trump said it was a great honor to welcome Prince Mohammed to the White House and praised his father for paving the way for the young prince to take over the country.

“One thing you have been really focused on is the terrorism threat,” Mr. Trump told the crown prince. “We have a zero tolerance for the funding of terrorism. Saudi Arabia has been working very hard on that.”

The president said a series of meetings he held with Middle Eastern leaders in Saudi Arabia last spring was “one of the most incredible two-day meetings that I’ve ever seen.”

This is the crown prince’s first trip to the U.S. since he became heir to the throne in June, an episode that ushered in a period of chaos in the kingdom. In November, he directed a far-reaching corruption crackdown that targeted hundreds of people—among them princes, officials and prominent businessmen—rattling the royal family and spooking global investors.

Many of the accused were released after reaching undisclosed cash settlements with the government.

Reassuring the business community and strengthening economic ties is a key goal of the Saudi royal’s U.S. tour.

The U.S. is hoping to secure up to $35 billion in new business deals with Saudi Arabia as Prince Mohammed travels to New York, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Seattle and Houston to discuss new ventures. Meetings with executives from Google LLC, Apple Inc. and Lockheed Martin are among those on the agenda.

U.S. and Saudi officials are expected to follow up on the status of possible business deals worth hundreds of billions—including $100 billion in arms sales alone—that were touted by both countries during Mr. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia last year.

The U.S. also sees Prince Mohammed as a key ally in its bid to bridge differences between Israel and the Palestinians. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a White House adviser whom the president has charged with restarting the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, views Prince Mohammed as an ally who can influence the Palestinians and bring them to the table.

U.S. officials also are also trying to forge a deal to end a regional crisis pitting Qatar against Saudi Arabia and its allies in hopes of reuniting the Gulf nations in an important regional alliance. But Saudi officials have indicated this isn’t a priority for them, rejecting Washington’s mediation.

On Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir dismissed critics who say his country is killing civilians and stoking a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

A big focus of Prince Mohammed’s trip will be to try to fix Saudi Arabia’s image problem that never fully recovered from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which were carried out mostly by Saudi citizens.

Another topic on the agenda is Saudi Arabia’s desire to purchase nuclear reactors. The Trump administration has been eager to secure the sale, which would be worth billions of dollars.

But Congress must review any accord that transfers U.S. nuclear technology. To block such an agreement, both the Senate and House must vote against it.

Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla, and Brad Sherman, D-Ca, warned Tuesday in a letter to the Energy and State Departments that they may introduce a resolution of disapproval unless the Saudis are precluded from enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel to produce plutonium, two essential steps in developing nuclear weapons.

Saudi officials have indicated they will not agree to such tough measures, citing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium under the 2015 Iran agreement.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at [email protected]

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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