Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman began his three week tour of the US with a reception at the White House with US President Donald Trump yesterday. The 32-year-old was lavished with praise as the two leaders discussed pressing issues including the Iran nuclear deal, security across the Middle East, the blockade on Qatar and the war in Yemen.
But it was the arms deal that was the centrepiece of conversation between the two leaders as they posed in front of cameras. Arms sales to the Kingdom is a major component of the $200 billion investment package agreed last year during Trump’s visit to Riyadh.
Trump surprised everyone by holding up a chart of an array of military arsenal approved for sale to Riyadh. Hardware ranged from ships to missile defence to planes and fighting vehicles. Holding up the large board with pictures of approved sales, Trump went through the cost of each military hardware and joked “that’s peanuts for you we should have charged you more”.
Both leaders were keen to emphasise that relations between the two countries was deep, strong and mutually beneficial. Speaking in English, Bin Salman said: “We are the oldest ally of the US in the Middle East.” While Trump observed that the “relationship is probably the strongest it’s ever been. 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.”
Prior to his visit it was reported that Bin Salman was going to Washington to push Trump to adopt a harder line on Iran. Trump displayed his characteristic bellicose tone telling everyone in the Oval Office that the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama, was the “worst deal ever”.
However there was little clue as to what he will do in May when the deal comes up for recertification. “The Iran deal is coming up soon and you will see what will happen,” Trump said, adding: “Iran hasn’t been treating that part of the world, or the world appropriately.”
The Saudi-led blockade on Qatar was not discussed in the Oval Office in front of reporters but it was reported that behind closed doors Trump urged Bin Salman to settle the festering issue that pits Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar.
Prior to the meeting in the Oval Office a senior White House official was reported by the Financial Times saying that “the president believes that Gulf unity is critical in the region”. The official went on to add that while Trump was initially willing to let Gulf allies deal with the dispute, he had become “much more concerned” about the detrimental impact of the dispute to US interests in the region.
The FT revealed that that the Qatar schism would be a key point of discussion at yesterday’s working lunch between the two men and that the goal of the discussion would be to heal the rift and set up mechanisms to ensure future disputes do not become as costly.
During yesterday’s dinner with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser; Jason D. Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy for Middle East peace; and Michael Bell, the senior director for the Middle East at the National Security Council, Trump is said to have briefed Bin Salman on the status of their peace plan for the Israelis and Palestinians, which is reported to be nearing completion.
With his first pit stop out of the way, Bin Salman plans to travel to New York, Boston, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Houston, visiting companies that include Apple, Google and security and aerospace company Lockheed Martin.