Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman is buoyed by his successful visits to Cairo and London as he comes to Washington. Riyadh is sticking to its hard-line foreign policy and expects complete support from the Trump administration. But unstated are Saudi concerns about the scandals and chaos surrounding the administration and their potential consequences.
The crown prince is eager to secure international support for his tough line toward Iran and Qatar and his 3-year-old war in Yemen. The Saudis have broken ties with both Tehran and Doha since King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud ascended the throne. Prince Mohammed has hinted that the Saudis want regime change in both. Mohammed stars in a Saudi video that shows him leading a victorious Saudi army into Tehran; the video has gone viral in the region. Saudi forces enforce the land blockade of Qatar and Riyadh makes no secret it wants a change in the emirate.
But the prince just sacked the top commanders of the Saudi military. The joint chiefs of staff were fired this month with no warning. Mohammed, who is the mastermind of the Yemeni war, was frustrated that despite an enormous defense budget, the Saudi armed forces' performance in Yemen has been unimpressive at best. Despite occasional local successes, the war is an expensive quagmire with no end in sight. The Saudi army has barely crossed the border. Houthi rebel missiles continue to be fired at Saudi targets despite intense airstrikes. The Saudis seem determined to continue trying for a military solution and Mohammed says his new generals will be “believers,” presumably in him.
In Cairo, the Egyptians supported Mohammed's regional agenda completely and finalized the legal process for the turnover of two islands in the Straits of Tiran to Saudi control. The territory transfer is deeply unpopular in Egypt but it is the price for Saudi financial support. The Egyptians support the Yemeni war but have ruled out sending troops to fight there. Egyptians know from bitter experience the folly of trying to conquer Yemen’s Zaydi tribes.
In London, the war in Yemen and UK support for it is opposed by the Labor opposition and much of the public. The prince has been accused of deliberately starving the Yemeni people and engaging in war crimes. But the highlight of the prince’s visit was the announcement of a preliminary agreement for the purchase of 48 Typhoon jet fighters for the Royal Saudi Air Force. If completed, it will be the largest arms deal since Mohammed became defense minister by far. The Saudi media, controlled by the country's royal court, trumpeted the prince as the victor in the “battle of London” over the British critics.
The Saudi relationship with the Trump team is closer than with any president since George H.W. Bush and the liberation of Kuwait. Since last year's May summit, Washington has praised the elevation of Mohammed to heir apparent and endorsed his Vision 2030 plan to modernize the kingdom. The decision to let women drive in the kingdom rightly enjoys wide support.
Other policies are much more controversial. His anti-corruption drive in November was endorsed by US President Donald Trump but castigated in the Western media as a clumsy shakedown with little legitimacy. The whole affair is likely to produce more unseemly revelations. Human rights activists have noted that executions have doubled in the kingdom since Mohammed became crown prince. The long-promised opening of ARAMCO to foreign investment, the centerpiece of Vision 2030, is now put off to 2019.
As Al-Monitor has reported, opposition to US support for the war in Yemen is strengthening in the Senate. The Democrats who were reluctant to criticize the US posture when Barack Obama was in office are much less constrained now and more attentive to the humanitarian disaster the war has created. The Saudis have successfully blocked most media coverage of the war but even the White House has cautioned Riyadh to ease the blockade.
Behind the formal meetings and official statements, the Saudis will try quietly to evaluate the future of the Trump team. The removal of Jared Kushner’s top-secret clearance and the mounting legal jeopardy surrounding his future imperil the prince’s most valued interlocutor. The money trail to Kushner is under investigation. Trashing Obama, a Saudi favorite pastime, is not a smart long-term approach to a democracy. The Saudi strategy toward America is built fundamentally on the Trump family connection, expensive lobbyists and Iran bashing. The prince has little experience with the complexities of America’s politics, which are more complicated than ever in the Trump era. All the more reason to take stock.