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Charm offensive part of Saudis’ ‘pay-to-play’ relationship with US

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President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) met in the White House on Tuesday. In front of the TV cameras, President Trump only focused on arms deals worth tens of billions of dollars, which he pointed out make the Saudis our allies.

It seemed that arm sales had become a “pay-to-play” deal, which would guarantee our support for MbS’s extensive economic and political agenda as he visits the U.S.

{mosads}On the political side, MbS’s visit will seek to give real teeth to a U.S.-Saudi common front to counter Iran’s hegemonic policies in the Middle East. MbS is courting the U.S. to be fully aligned with Saudi Arabia on what he sees as Iran’s existential threat to the kingdom.


MbS wants to stop Iran from encircling the kingdom. Hence, Saudis need U.S. support to wage the war against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, to rein in Iran in Iraq, to promote anti-Iran groups in Syria, to gain back from their political primacy in Lebanon from Hezbollah and to limit Qatar’s cozying up to Iran.

From the Saudi standpoint, no other major powers are credible to stop Iran. China is playing both Iran and Saudi Arabia against each other but seems to favor Iran for the “Belt and Road Initiative.”

Russia is presently quite close to Iran, but like China, it plays both sides as it remains closely allied to the Saudis to manage the oil markets. Thus, the U.S. is the only country to work with against Iran, whatever the cost.

Saudi Arabia also needs the U.S. to bring Qatar to heel. Conversely, the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia (and the UAE as well) to re-unite the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose disarray is an open door to Iranian influence.

MbS is likely to point out that Qatar, in spite of the huge U.S. base there, has supported strongly anti-American groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda militias in Syria and Al Jazeera TV. He may seek to obtain a green light to pressure Qatar further without U.S. interference.

On the economic side, MbS will push his plan to push Saudi Arabia into the 21st century. He has undertaken a true “cultural revolution” called “Vision 2030.” This plan calls to replace crude oil as the main source of Saudi wealth.

MbS wants to change the people’s dependence on the state for jobs, subsidies and extensive social benefits by the state becoming dependent on the people, including funding fiscal deficits at times of low oil income.

It means structural changes to the economy so that the private sector and foreign investors create jobs for Saudis in industries and services, instead of the state.

MbS’s vision demands a radical change in society. Foreign workers, which comprise 80 percent of the private sector, must be replaced by the Saudi youth, men and women, who are today underemployed.

However, this implies that women become fully part of the work force, which requires that women are allowed to work and interact with men in the workplace. This in turn requires that the religious establishment be forced to surrender its austere grip on society.

By the same token, the youth feel that all citizens have to bear the brunt of the changes, including a royal family that had extensive privileges known to all and resented by all — hence, the recent widely reported episode at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.

By most accounts, the young Saudis, who make up the vast majority of the population, are very much in support of MbS. They are also very nervous about the changes for fear of backlash from the established groups that are bearing the brunt of the reforms: the royals, some merchants and the religious establishment.

To avoid such a backlash, these groups have been dealt with by a centralization of power into the hands of MbS that has not been seen since King Abdulaziz founded the modern kingdom the early part of the 20th century.

The U.S. can benefit from the Saudi economic quest beyond just the arms deals. MbS is emphasizing technology as one answer to replace low-cost foreigners by young Saudis. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is likely to make large investments in U.S. technological firms and investment funds.

For a number of years now, the Saudi oil and chemical giants have been moving away from just producing crude oil to basic and advanced chemicals, metals and fertilizers. This has created opportunities for large and medium-sized U.S. companies to establish bases to conquer the Asian markets using the Saudi low-cost feedstocks.

MbS will continue his charm offensive with the economic and political elites of the U.S., with the ultimate goals of defeating Iranian hegemony while developing a modern Saudi economy and society. His success relies heavily on the U.S., even if it implies paying the substantial “pay-to-play” price demanded by President Trump.

Jean-Francois Seznec is a political scientist specializing in business and finance in the Middle East. He is currently an adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at the Johns Hopkins University and at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and School of Foreign Service.

Tags Donald Trump Economic history of Saudi Arabia Gulf Cooperation Council International relations Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict Iran–Saudi Arabia relations Middle East Mohammad bin Salman Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia–United States relations Shia–Sunni relations World

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