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Bin Salman in Washington
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 03 - 2018

Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman reached his final destination on his first solo trip abroad on Tuesday with a visit to Washington to meet US President Donald Trump and continue building support in the international community for his programme of reforms in Saudi Arabia.
The visit came against a background of ongoing speculation that Saudi King Salman will retire and allow Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) to ascend to the throne, becoming the youngest ruler of the country since its foundation early in the last century.
Bin Salam has already charmed the Saudi population, but without the support of the West, notably the UK and the United States, he is unlikely to succeed despite the reforms he has initiated.
Relations between the US and Iran, improving under former US president Barack Obama, have notably soured under Trump, and this could benefit Saudi Arabia and build the country's influence across the Middle East.
The question now is whether Trump genuinely supports this young reforming crown prince or whether he is merely taking advantage of Saudi-Iranian tensions to pursue his own policy to use Iranian threats as a way of supporting Israel and building further tensions between the two rivals in the region.
The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has hit an all-time high, this having to do with factors including the personality of the US president and the young crown prince's attempts to reform the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia saw Obama as having abandoned the special relationship between the two countries, while Trump has restored it. He chose to go to Saudi Arabia on his first Middle Eastern trip to show the importance of the relationship.
The principal test of Obama from the Saudi point of view took place in late 2010 and early 2011 with the Arab Spring events. Obama was seen as having abandoned Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at the time, who had the support of Riyadh.
In addition, Obama talked of drawing down US forces and the US commitment to the Middle East with his idea of a “pivot” towards Asia, widely seen as leaving Iraq in particular for the Iranians to expand their influence.
Saudi Arabia feared, as Iran did during the rule of the former shah in the 1970s, that the US was drawing closer to its rivals, making Saudi Arabia a secondary ally despite the country's service to the US since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
However, relations between Iran and the US were not restored despite Obama's efforts because Iran was still busy with its own internal power-grabs between different factions in the government and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's pushing back against relations with the West.
Trump then won the US presidential elections, followed by bin Salman becoming Saudi crown-prince eight months ago. He understands the need for reform if his nation wants to have permanent friends in the West, particularly in the US, since Saudi Arabia had been seen as a potential hotbed of extremism threatening global security.
However, Iran is culturally and historically better placed to fight radicalism and extremism, and some in the West may see the country as a better alternative than Saudi Arabia. This is true of the majority of the population in Iran and not about the ruling system, which remains an ideologically oppressive regime.
The population in Iran is what the West places its hopes in, since this may eventually act to overthrow the regime, particularly if engagements with the West continue.
The Saudi crown prince's job is thus to make necessary reforms in Saudi Arabia both to benefit his own people and to change the face of his nation for good.
In an interview with the US TV channel CBS's flagship news programme 60 minutes on 18 March ahead of his travel to the US, bin Salman blamed Iran and its 1979 Revolution for the extremism and radicalisation in Saudi Arabia.
Bin Salman did not hesitate to declare that the kingdom would work quickly to obtain a nuclear bomb if Iran developed one.
He said that 40 years ago Saudi Arabia had been a moderate society in which women could drive and watch films in cinemas, but that the country had become radicalised because of Iran's behaviour in the region.
The Saudi leadership has problems with the nuclear deal signed with Iran, and it was opposed to any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran while claiming that nothing had changed in Iran's regional behaviour since the signing of the deal.
There was also talk by Obama about the Saudis needing to “share the region” with Iran.
Bin Salman now has much to discuss with Trump, including about Iran and Yemen, but also, and perhaps more importantly, about the reforms he has said are necessary for his nation to carry out by 2030.
MBS well understands that any supportive policy by the US is not guaranteed for good. Within three years, there may be a new president in the White House with a different agenda on the Middle East, but for MBS fundamental changes now should be enough to guarantee his rule for the decades ahead without relying on the West for support.


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