In the post-second world war era, American-Saudi relations had been a strategic constant in the Arab world. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia had made sure to work in concert and coordinate closely their Arab and regional policies. There had been disagreements, and in some instances, very serious ones, like the ramifications of the oil embargo in the early 1970s, in solidarity with Egypt and Syria in the October war.
Relations between the two countries cooled, momentarily, at the height of what was dubbed the Arab Spring, due to the support that the Obama administration hastily provided for the pseudo-revolutions in some Arab countries, and the perception by Saudi Arabia under the late King Abdullah that Washington had dumped its old allies like former Egyptian president Mohamed Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The full Saudi support for Egypt in the wake of the June revolution of 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief rule in Cairo from 2012 to 2013 contrasted sharply with the sanctions that the Obama administration decreed against Egypt in retaliation.
The Obama administration mended fences with the Saudis and the Arab Gulf countries by hosting the Camp David Summit in 2015 in an attempt to restore confidence and mutual trust. Former president Barack Obama had flown to Saudi Arabia in 2014 to meet the late King Abdullah to put the bilateral relations between the two countries back on track. His passing away in January 2015 removed a tough Saudi leader from the scene, who had lost trust in the Obama administration, and in Obama himself.
The successor to the late Saudi monarch, King Salman, proved to be more open towards American overtures, and this manifested itself in American support for the war in Yemen that Saudi Arabia had launched in March 2015.In the meantime, the election of President Donald Trump reinvigorated Saudi-American relations to the extent that the first foreign country that President Trump visited in his first tour abroad was Saudi Arabia, where he participated in an unprecedented American-Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh last May.
A few weeks earlier, President Trump had received at the White House the former deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. Later developments would prove that this visit was extremely important in chartering a new course for the American-Saudi relationship for the next 50 years.
One month after the Riyadh Summit of May 2017, Prince Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince, a move that the White House welcomed. And the new crown prince, ever since, has embarked on a very ambitious modernisation plan in Saudi Arabia. For the first time since the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, women would be allowed to drive effective June 2018, a revolutionary move by any measure, given the adamant opposition of the powerful religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, women were allowed to participate in soccer games, also a revolutionary first.
As far as foreign policy is concerned, Riyadh, once MBS (as the crown prince is known in foreign media) was in the saddle, began adopting positions very close to American policies on two major questions. The first relates to Iran and the second to the Palestinian question in advance of the much-anticipated American peace proposals for a “historic deal,” according to the White House, between the Palestinians and the Israelis. On the two questions, differences of policies are negligible. The American and Saudi positions on confronting Iran and its proxies across the Middle East and the Gulf are identical.
Another measure of full American support to MBS came when Saudi authorities launched a major operation against corruption, at least that was the public rationale for the arrest of 100 former senior Saudi officials that included royal princes, as well as leading businessmen, like Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who was later released from custody. There are still dozens of leading figures under arrest. When the news of the mass crackdown became known, President Trump tweeted that King Salman and his crown prince know best.
Against this historical and political background, MBS flew to the United States this month on a two-week tour of the United States. President Trump received him at the White House on 20 March. The Saudi crown prince later met with congressional leaders, as well as the editorial board of the Washington Post, in a charm offensive aiming at consolidating his power and support base in the American capital. It was not lost on Middle Eastern observers that the news that Saudi Arabia would allow Air India to cross Saudi airspace in direct air links between India and Israel, for the first time since the creation of Israel in 1948, had begun to circulate in Israeli and American media around the time MBS arrived in Washington DC.
The Saudi crown prince is still touring the United States from coast to coast, visiting Silicon Valley, high-tech institutes, oil giants, and influential think tanks in a bid to lay the foundations of his future rule of Saudi Arabia which could come any time soon, and a strengthened alliance between his country and the United States.
Historians would compare this visit and its impact on the long-term relationship between Washington and Riyadh to the encounter between former American president Franklin Roosevelt and the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz Al Saud on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal back in 1945, a summit that was arranged by the Egyptian government. This Suez Canal summit had laid the foundation for a solid and long-lasting American-Saudi relationship that had shaped the Middle East, the Gulf, and the Arab World for more than half a century. The present tour of MBS is nothing less, albeit in a much different international system and in a highly-altered regional system.
Hussein Haridy is a former assis- tant to the foreign minister