Mohammed bin Salman hopes to seal major business deals during a three-week tour but the failure of his relationship with Jared Kushner to deliver progress on Middle East peace and Iran has left him exposed. Ahead of his first visit to Washington as heir to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been warned to set a distance between himself and Donald Trump, who some regional advisers have come to regard as volatile and unpredictable.
The US president will receive Prince Mohammed in the White House on Tuesday during a reciprocal visit after Trump’s high-profile trip to Saudi Arabia last May when – on his first trip abroad as leader – he reset bilateral ties, which had become strained under Barack Obama. The White House meeting marks the beginning of a three-week, seven-city trip to the US, in which Prince Mohammed will travel with an entourage of officials and business leaders, seeking to strike deals with Silicon Valley firms and oil and gas companies in Texas.
A senior US administration official said the Trump administration would be lobbying for $35bn in deals for US companies. Prince Mohammed’s arrival aims to build on political and business connections that have been strengthened ever since Trump’s visit to Riyadh – particularly through his son-in-law and envoy, Jared Kushner. However, as Trump and Kushner face mounting travails on the home front, regional allies – initially buoyed by Washington’s renewed support – are now striking a cautionary tone to the Saudi prince.
Over the past 10 months, Prince Mohammed has struck up a warm rapport with Kushner, who has been a regular guest in Riyadh, where he has discussed two of the region’s most intractable issues: peace between Israel and the Palestinians and how to counter Iran. However, efforts on both fronts have so far been counterproductive, officials have told the Guardian, leaving both men – but in particular Prince Mohammed – exposed.
At the same time, concerns have mounted about legal pressures facing the president and Kushner, who have been targets of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential poll. Kushner is Trump’s unofficial envoy to the Middle East, but further concerns were raised in the region last month when his security clearance was revoked. Reports from Washington said this was partly because of his extensive and sometimes undeclared foreign contacts.
More broadly, the high turnover of senior administration staff and Trump’s unorthodox way of making policy via Twitter instead of an executive process have unsettled allies in the Middle East, who are not sure what to make of his policies, or temperament. “Everyone has spent a lot of time second-guessing him,” said a regional official. “And it’s making his friends wary.”
During his visit to Washington, the Saudi prince will meet the CIA director – and nominee to be the next US secretary of state – Mike Pompeo, as well as Vice-President Mike Pence, Trump’s embattled national security adviser, HR McMaster, and defence secretary, James Mattis.
Both Kushner and Trump had been keen to present their version of a Middle East peace plan, which would bring Israel and the Palestinians together after 70 years. But after the White House recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – in a move which Trump said removed a stumbling block from peace talks – the Palestinians rejected the US as a broker.
According to regional leaders familiar with basic details of what was being put together, Prince Mohammed was to be responsible for bringing the Palestinians to the table, while Kushner was to do the same with Israel and its backers among Jewish groups in the US.. “The problem, though, was Jerusalem,” said the regional leader. “[Palestinian president] Mahmoud Abbas is under a lot of pressure from the Saudis about this, and he is very stressed and ill because of it. What were they thinking? How can the root cause of all of this no longer be at the centre of a solution?”
While Saudi Arabia earlier this year denied claims that Jerusalem was no longer a centrepiece of peace talks between the two sides, a senior Palestinian official confirmed to the Guardian that such a proposal has been made “at senior levels”. Citing the sensitivity of the discussions, the official would not elaborate.
A government member in a Gulf state, who demanded anonymity, corroborated the account, but said that after an initial discussion had begun between senior officials in December, no further talks had been held. On Monday, Abbas called Trump’s ambassador to Israel, a “son of a dog”.
New approaches towards intractable issues have become trademarks of Prince Mohammed’s brief reign as Crown Prince. While he has achieved some change domestically, with a series of social changes – including moves to break down rigid rules that have marginalised women in Saudi society – he has not achieved the same results on the international front.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia remains bogged down in a war with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and has imposed a punishing blockade on an impoverished population, that has drawn widespread international condemnation. A nine-month standoff with Qatar also remains unresolved. Yemen is likely to be up for discussion in Washington, although Trump has shown little interest in the war.
Prince Mohammed is expected to meet senior leaders of corporations such as Google, Apple, General Electric and Uber while in the US, as well as Hollywood producers. After Washington, Prince Mohammed is due to fly to Boston, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston. At the last stop he is hoping to lure more of the US oil sector to Saudi Arabia, doubling down on Trump’s pivot away from clean energy towards fossil fuels.
Briefing reporters in Washington, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said the kingdom was in discussion with the US about contracts to build nuclear reactors for the energy sector, but was assessing cooperation with Russia, China, France, South Korea and Japan.