Trump Paid Royal Visit From Saudi Crown Prince

Mar 20, 2018
Originally published on March 20, 2018 9:00 pm
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Saudi Arabia's crown prince paid President Trump a visit today. The White House was Mohammed bin Salman's first stop on a tour of the U.S. The presidential greeting was meant to highlight the strong relationship between the two countries at a time when some are questioning just how close they should be. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: President Trump gave Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a warm welcome, saying the two had become very good friends since Trump visited Saudi Arabia last May.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I would really have to say the relationship was, to put it mildly, very, very strained during the Obama administration. And the relationship now is probably as good as it's really ever been.

NORTHAM: Tamara Wittes with the Brookings Institution says there's a span of four decades between the two men. But they have the same style of running government.

TAMARA WITTES: It's a very closed circle. Not a lot leaks. Not a lot is decided until the guy at the top decides. And then that is it.

NORTHAM: Both the president and the crown prince see eye to eye on certain issues. Both want to curtail Iran's influence in the region, work together on fighting extremism. And they both want to do business with each other. But Aaron David Miller with the Woodrow Wilson Center says Saudi Arabia has its own interests in mind.

AARON DAVID MILLER: My advice is be careful. Don't fall under the spell of the Saudis. Encourage what really needs to be encouraged. Support what needs to be encouraged. But don't affix yourself like a barnacle to the side of a boat on a smaller regional power that frankly may have interests that do not entirely align with America's.

NORTHAM: Miller says the crown prince has helped put a better face on his ultraconservative kingdom, allowing women to drive and loosening up strict social norms.

MILLER: Along with this aspiration to fundamentally change the character of his country's economy and social structure comes an impulsiveness and a recklessness perhaps born of lack of experience. But it's already been demonstrated in several ill-advised and ill-timed foreign policy adventures.

NORTHAM: One of those has been the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar for its support of Iran. The U.S. has a large and strategic military base in Qatar. Wittes with Brookings says initially, President Trump backed the blockade.

WITTES: I think he's become persuaded that this ongoing family argument is getting in the way of American goals like pushing back on Iran, like defeating ISIS and Islamist extremism. And he wants to see the dispute resolved.

NORTHAM: Prince Mohammed is also the architect of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. Civilian deaths increased sharply after Saudi Arabia entered the war. There's widespread malnutrition and a cholera outbreak. The crown prince's visit came as the Senate voted down a resolution to limit the amount of U.S. military support for the Saudis in Yemen. Gerald Feierstein is the director of Gulf affairs at the Middle East Institute.

GERALD FEIERSTEIN: There is fairly widespread and bipartisan concern in the Congress about the Saudi war effort and the humanitarian situation inside of Yemen.

NORTHAM: There was little sign President Trump was going to hold back on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. During his meeting, he held up a poster board showing ships, planes and other military hardware the U.S. hopes to sell to the kingdom.

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TRUMP: Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they are 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. There's nobody even close.

NORTHAM: Prince Mohammed meets with members of Congress tomorrow. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.