Washington: US President Barack Obama will host Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman at the White House later on Friday, underscoring his guest’s meteoric rise and increasingly pivotal role in strained US-Saudi ties.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama would meet the 30-year-old deputy crown prince, who has become the driving force behind economic reform and a more activist Saudi foreign policy.
King Salman Bin Abdulaziz’s son, who is his country’s defence minister, has met the very biggest of Washington’s big hitters during a weeklong visit.
He held talks with the CIA director, the secretaries of state, defence and treasury, as well as leading members of Congress.
The White House said Prince Mohammad’s meeting with Obama would take place in the Oval Office — a rare honour for a non-head of state, one not afforded to the Dalai Lama earlier in the week.
For the White House, Mohammad Bin Salman is a relatively unknown, while Mohammad Bin Nayef — as interior minister — has been the go-to royal on counterterrorism for years.
The meeting comes as ties between the US and Saudi Arabia have been strained over how to approach Riyadh’s arch-enemy Iran, the war in Yemen and the seemingly imminent release of a dossier about Saudi Arabian links to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
High on the agenda will be Prince Mohammad’s efforts to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s state-dominated and oil-dependent economy, bringing in the private sector and creating jobs for the country’s young population.
“Given their huge investment in education over the last decade, if they are not able to move away from a state-run economy and develop a private sector, you are not going to have the jobs that young people need to have hope,” said former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Smith.
Amid disagreements over the US nuclear deal with Iran, economic reform appears to be a much-needed issue that could bring Riyadh and Washington together.
Obama’s White House has repeatedly argued that Saudi Arabia’s most pressing security task is internal reform to put the state on a more stable and sustainable footing.
Effectively reforming the economy is likely to require the easing of tough rules on female participation in the workplace.
After Prince Mohammad met top US economic policymakers on Wednesday, including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the White House “underscored the United States’ desire to be a key partner in helping Saudi Arabia implement its ambitious economic reform programme”.
Prince Mohammad is also sure to address another of his signature policies — Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has been a point of deep contention between the White House and the royal court.
The United States has aided and publicly backed the operation to push back against Iranian-backed Al Houthi rebels who took over the capital Sana’a.
The war signalled Saudi Arabia’s willingness to tackle Iranian influence in the region.
But Obama’s administration has been repeatedly embarrassed by the killing of civilians and worried that while the war has dragged on, Al Qaida has been allowed to grow.
More than 6,400 Yemenis have been killed since the intervention started 15 months ago, the majority of them civilians.
Al Houthis remain in control of most of the central and northern highlands as well as the Red Sea coast.
The United Nations had blacklisted the Saudi-led coalition after concluding in a report that it was responsible for 60 per cent of the 785 deaths of children in Yemen last year.
But the world body later reversed its stance, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon citing “undue pressure” from Saudi Arabia and its allies who had threatened to cut off funding to UN aid programmes over the blacklisting.
There are signs that the war may be winding down and Saudi Arabia and its allies may be shifting focus to tackling Al Qaida.
The UAE on Wednesday announced its “war is over” in Yemen, although left open the prospect of a continued counterterrorism role.