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Fri 23 Mar 2018 11:09 AM

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Opinion: Will Mohammed bin Salman's charm offensive pay off?

In the United States, the crown prince found a receptive audience with an eye towards a range of bilateral opportunities

Opinion: Will Mohammed bin Salman's charm offensive pay off?

For Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s visit to the United States marks a new era, with the kingdom sending a new message to the US and the world after an uneasy eight-year relationship with the Obama administration.

During his meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office last Tuesday, the American president lavished praise on the young prince and in the process made a valid point about the state of US-Saudi relations, particularly in business.

“The relationship was, to put it mildly, very, very strained during the Obama administration. And the relationship now is probably as good it’s really ever been and I think it will probably only get better,” Trump said at the meeting. “[There are] tremendous [Saudi] investments made in our country and that means jobs for our workers, jobs for our people.”

Prince Mohammed, for his part, noted that the kingdom is examining $400bn in US business opportunities over the next four years, on top of this week’s announcements that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund would take a $400m stake in Endeavor, one of Hollywood’s biggest talent and event managers, as well as $12.5bn in plane, missile and frigate purchases from US companies. “A lot of things could be tackled in the close future and more opportunities and that’s why we’re here today.”

Turning a page

Just as importantly, Prince Mohammed’s visit marks the high point – so far – of an ongoing media blitz in the US and across the West, meant to assuage concerns over his anti-corruption purge and promote his far-reaching social and economic reforms to a receptive foreign audience – one that hopes Saudi Arabia is turning a new page in its history, shifting away from the social conservatism that has marked its society for the last four decades.

It was this message that Prince Mohammed was sending during an interview with CBS show 60 Minutes, when he told reporter Norah O’Donnell that young Saudis of his generation were the “victims” of the wave of conservatism that swept Saudi Arabia in the decades after 1979. “This is not the real Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Building on his point, the Crown Prince noted that many of the ideas that forbid the mixing of sexes and that call for women to be completely covered “contradict” the way of life of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). “The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” he said. “This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire to wear.”

Interests align

The vision of the “new” Saudi Arabia that Prince Mohammed sought to promote in the United States will, in both the short-term and the long-run, create even more opportunities for Saudi investment in the US, and in Saudi Arabia by the US businesses that now, more than ever before, will consider Saudi Arabia a key ally and partner.

For Trump, the warm relationship with Saudi Arabia on display marks a rare instance of a relationship with a foreign power improving. It comes at a time when America’s relationships with some of its most prominent historical allies – such as Canada, South Korea and Germany – have been tense and marked by animosity and criticism. In Saudi Arabia, they have found an ally whose interests, both in foreign policy and economic terms, dovetail well with those of the United States under Trump.

At the time of going to press, Prince Mohammed’s visit to the US was at its very beginning, and largely political in nature as he met with the most prominent names inside Washington DC. On March 30, however, his trip was set to continue to the West Coast to meet with business leaders in a number of industries, including Apple and Google, before ending his trip in Houston, the home of American corporate energy.

It is likely during these stops that the real economic significance of his efforts in the United States will begin to take form and pay off.