Trump Goes to Saudi Arabia
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
President Trump will receive an effusive welcome here from his royal hosts determined to underscore that once again Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are close allies. Barack Obama favored Iran, but that’s over. King Salman, 81, is gathering 50 Islamic leaders to meet Mr. Trump. This unprecedented assembly is intended to show not only that Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Islamic world but that Muslim leaders support the U.S. against Islamic State terrorists.
While the elderly monarch is host, the indisputable power behind the throne is his young son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, 31. He is orchestrating a two-day summit spectacular that will star Donald Trump and the new face of Saudi Arabia—a country now enjoying once-forbidden entertainment and a much larger role for women, who may be allowed to drive as early as this summer. Conservatives seethe but can’t block change.
The young prince and the president have much in common. Both are outsiders, brash, unorthodox and new to politics. Each faces strong opposition at home. Both seek to spur economic growth by reducing the role of government. And each is fighting orthodoxy: MBS, as the prince is known, wants to curb the role of religion and tradition, which inhibit modernization, while Mr. Trump battles leftist orthodoxy and political correctness. Both are smart marketers.
Mr. Trump’s presence is an opportunity for the prince to show off his modernization effort. An extravaganza featuring something for everyone—the Harlem Globetrotters taking on a Saudi basketball team, car races, country singer Toby Keith —is intended to convince Americans there is a new, open Saudi Arabia and Saudis that mixing cultures and sexes isn’t evil.
How can the son of a king be an outsider? In a culture that reveres age, especially among the royal family’s thousands of princes, the appointment last year of a young man who isn’t a senior prince, nor even his father’s eldest son, came as a shock. Like Mr. Trump, Mohammed bin Salman faces a “resistance” in the form of determined opponents among his royal relatives. Social media has created a “virtual opposition” by enabling disgruntled citizens to express their views.
So both the prince and the president seek success to bolster their leadership, easier to achieve in diplomacy than domestic affairs. Given the badly frayed state of U.S.-Saudi relations, Mr. Trump is guaranteed a win, at least with Saudis, because he isn’t Barack Obama. The president has further pleased Riyadh by making this his first stop on his first foreign trip. No president has ever put Saudi Arabia first so visibly.
But the Saudis want concrete support once Air Force One lifts off for Israel, Rome and then a NATO summit in Brussels. Both countries see Iran as a threat, but the U.S. president demands more burden-sharing from allies. So the prince, who also is defense minister, is said to be ready to invite the U.S. military back to Saudi bases vacated in 2003 in the face of opposition to foreign troops in the land of the two holy mosques. Riyadh is fighting a costly war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the prince wants more U.S. support.
If the leaders agree to return the U.S. military here, it would mark a significant new commitment to Saudi Arabia’s defense—and surely be seen by Iran as a provocation. It would be a clear triumph for both leaders—and a repudiation of Mr. Obama’s exhortation that Saudi Arabia “share the neighborhood” with Iran.
The U.S. wants to curb Iranian expansion but may be cautious about new entanglements as Saudi-Iranian tensions are rising. Prince Mohammad recently slammed the door on any dialogue with Iran, insisting that Tehran seeks domination of the Muslim world. “We know we are a major target,” he said. “We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia, but we will work so the battle is there.” Iran immediately warned that if Riyadh persisted with “such stupidity,” nothing will be “left in Saudi Arabia except Mecca and Medina.”
Beyond bases and Islamic nation support in the fight against ISIS terrorists, King Salman seeks to tie the House of Saud to the Trump family. The king has just named another of his sons, Khalid, 29, a former fighter pilot, as ambassador to the U.S. Sending his son to Washington is a very personal gesture to a president with family working in the White House.
Prince Mohammad faces much tougher domestic challenges than President Trump does. The prince has to transform an economy and society long addicted to oil revenues, which have collapsed, and persuade coddled Saudis they must work. Mr. Trump is trying to raise U.S. GDP growth to 3% from 1%; Saudi Arabia has no growth. Mr. Trump seeks to spur U.S. energy production, while the prince is suppressing Saudi production to stabilize prices, in part weakened by growth in U.S. oil production. The U.S. got good news that unemployment is down to 4.4%. Saudi unemployment officially is 11%, but among the 70% of Saudis under 30 the true figure is triple that.
Mr. Trump, for all the angry opposition at home, is more secure than the deputy crown prince. Should his father die, a new king may remove Mohammad bin Salman. Some Saudis believe King Salman will promote MBS to crown prince and thus next in line to be king—but he hasn’t yet done so.
Regardless of these uncertainties, Mohammed bin Salman is confidently pushing ahead with ambitious plans to transform Saudi Arabia. Like Mr. Trump, the prince needs some clear wins over the next several years—an end to the costly Yemen war; successful privatization of Aramco, the national oil company, and other government companies set for public sale. He must persuade skeptical citizens that his plans will in coming years provide Saudis a prosperous life without dependence on oil.
Ms. House, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, is the author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future” ( Knopf, 2012).
Appeared in the May. 19, 2017, print edition.