Trump Welcomes Saudi Crown Prince to U.S. as `Big Purchaser'

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as a friend of the U.S. and “big purchaser” of American armaments and investments.

“A lot of people are at work” because of Saudi Arabia’s business, Trump said, adding that the kingdom has finalized $12.5 billion in purchases of planes, missiles and frigates from U.S. companies.

Prince Mohammed praised the kingdom’s “really deep” relationship with the U.S. and said the Saudis are considering $400 billion in U.S. investment opportunities.

“A lot of things could be tackled in the close future and more opportunities and that’s why we’re here today,” the prince added.

Prince Mohammed is starting a three-week trip across the U.S., his first visit since being designated the successor of his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are developing an increasingly close partnership, encompassing everything from isolating Iran to bolstering business ties beyond energy into technology, defense and entertainment, according to top U.S. and Saudi officials.

The prince used the stop in Washington to nurture contacts across party lines. He included meetings with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, according to a Saudi embassy statement. Absent from the schedule was House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

With a group of senators pressing to end U.S. intervention in Yemen in support of Saudi allies, the prince made arguments that the two countries could work together toward a political solution to the conflict, according to the statement. He also offered assurances of Saudi commitment to providing Yemen humanitarian assistance amid criticism over civilian suffering in the conflict.

Trump told reporters as the two leaders opened meetings the alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia “now is probably as good as it’s really ever been and I think will probably only get better.” The U.S. president added that relations were “very, very strained” under his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The Trump administration has adopted a pro-Saudi posture that is a dramatic shift from the Obama administration, which was cool to Saudi Arabia’s autocratic rulers over a human rights record that remains abysmal, according to advocacy groups such as Amnesty International. Trump has signaled he won’t seek to impose U.S. values on countries that support American foreign policy and economic objectives -- and Prince Mohammed arrives in the U.S. ready to cut deals.

Trump praised Saudi Arabia for “working very hard” to stop funding for terrorism in the region.

The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund announced on Monday that it would take a $400 million stake in Endeavor, one of Hollywood’s biggest talent and event managers. More deals are likely during Prince Mohammed’s trip, which runs through April 7.

One focus of Prince Mohammed’s meeting with Trump will be expanding cooperation to counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East, including the Islamic Republic’s alliance with Russia, according to White House officials who briefed reporters before the crown prince’s arrival.

For more on Saudi Arabia:

Read a profile of Mohammed bin Salman
Click here for a look at Saudi Arabia’s makeover plans
And here for a look at the Saudi quest for nuclear power
See what the breach with Qatar is about
Read about the war in Yemen and the resulting disaster

Trump foreshadowed a decision next month on the international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program, a deal struck by his predecessor that he opposed before taking office and has criticized since.

“The Iran deal is coming up. It’s probably another month or so, and you’re going to see what I do,” Trump told reporters. “But Iran has not been treating that part of the world or the world itself appropriately. A lot of bad things are happening in Iran.”

Asked if the U.S. should withdraw from the deal, Prince Mohammed said: “We’ll talk about that.”

The agenda also includes a discussion of Trump’s continued efforts to develop a Middle East peace plan, brokered by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Saudi political support and financing are seen as critical elements.

Officials said Trump will also seek to negotiate an end to a simmering dispute between a Saudi-led bloc and Qatar, a key U.S. ally the Saudis accuse of helping to finance terrorism. Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeatedly failed to negotiate an accord between the two sides. Trump will emphasize the importance of a strong and unified Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members include both Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Any agreement among the Gulf nations could be formalized at a Trump-hosted gathering at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, where the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord was first struck in the Carter administration, the administration officials said.

Beyond the Oval Office meeting with Trump, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, believed earlier this month to be possibly leaving the administration, will host a dinner for Prince Mohammed. The Saudi leader will also meet Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick to replace Tillerson.

The high-profile tour and meetings with top officials across government signals a relationship between the two nations that’s almost unrivaled since Trump took office in January 2017.

Beyond some mild criticism of its role in the Qatar dispute and the Yemen war, relations with Saudi Arabia have only strengthened. Breaking with tradition, Trump even made his first foreign trip as president to Saudi Arabia last May.

Politics, Then Business

From Washington, the theme turns more to business than politics, with an itinerary that will take the crown prince from Washington to Boston, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston. More than $35 billion of deals could be announced during the trip, according to a National Security Council official.

That would follow a decision last week by Goldman Sachs Group Inc., an erstwhile adviser to companies and governments in the Middle East, to deploy its own money in Saudi Arabia for the first time. The Saudis also plan to build nuclear power plants, and Washington is encouraging them to enlist American companies for the effort.

The political and investment news may help the crown prince distance himself from controversy following his decision to detain dozens of princes and members of the kingdom’s business elite late last year in what the government claimed was a crackdown on corruption.

In New York, he’ll host a forum for business executives and meet United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Saudi Arabia has come under harsh criticism at the UN for its lead role in the Yemen war and the resulting humanitarian disaster.

From the capital of U.S. finance, he’ll travel to the nation’s technology centers, meeting with philanthropic groups as well as leaders of companies including Google, Apple Inc., and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Finally, the crown prince will visit Saudi oil company Aramco’s research center in Houston on April 7 before returning to Riyadh.

Mohammed’s visit is probably not the last by a top Saudi leader this year. The country’s embassy in Washington said the crown prince’s extensive trip will lay groundwork for another visit later this year, by his father, King Salman.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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