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Feature Article
Muhammad bin Salman's US Visit: Victory Lap or Dangerous Gamble? 2016-06-18
The visit of the Kingdom's deputy crown prince this week to the United States flew largely under the radar, though it was widely heralded in the Middle Eastern press. Nonetheless, it had all the markings of what some have called an unofficial state visit, prompting speculation that the trip represents a victory in his rivalry with the crown prince and heir apparent. But has he come too far, too fast?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Muhammad bin Salman's trip to the United States was odd, to say the least. It is still unclear whether the invitation originated on the American side, as per the official line, or if the Saudis put had been angling for it. Coming on the heels of the announcement of his economic plan, Vision 2030, the timing co-incided with a great deal of interest, both from US business, which welcomed the opportunities presented, and from politicians on either side of the political divide, who hoped that greater economic liberalization would ultimately advance a more secular agenda, perhaps one more palatable to the broader American public, who regard the Saudis with a mixture of suspicion and hostility.

On the other hand, Muhammad has been aggressive in the promotion of his economic plans, and it is not hard to imagine that there was a certain amount of manoeuvring in order to wangle an invitation. Keen to be in the spotlight, the deputy crown prince can now point to a grand American tour as explicit recognition and acknowledgment that his agenda is the only viable way forward. Being feted by foreign leaders and business tycoons puts the stamp on Vision 2030 as something more than pie-in-the-sky thinking and crushes any remaining doubt that the plan is overly ambitious and unworkable. In this light, the idea that the invite originated with the Americans seems more like a public relations ploy. His older uncle, the crown prince, is still the clear favorite to succeed King Salman in the eyes of US officials, and one would normally have expected Muhammad bin Nayif, as the official heir apparent, to meet with the President and other leaders.

On top of the ambiguity, the timing was extremely awkward. In fact, with tensions already high between the two allies, it could not have come at a worse time. The US government appears set to release at least part of a 28-page classified section from a congressional report on 9/11 that some allege point to Saudi connections to the attacks. Further, there has been controversy surrounding a bill that would effectively give 9/11 families the ability to sue the Saudi government. This comes against a backdrop of increasing animosity towards the Saudis, with many pointing to the Kingdom's promotion of a hard-line version of Sunni fundamentalism around the world as sowing the seeds for the rising tide of radicalism. President Obama, too, has made no secret of his distaste for the Saudis and their conservative mores, though relations have remained outwardly cordial. Now, the massacre in Orlando by a crazed gunman pledging allegiance to Islamic State only days before Muhammad's visit has brought the dangers of an intolerant and violent strain of Islam into sharp focus once again, and the heated rhetoric of a Presidential campaign only fans the flames even more. No doubt, the Americans would have preferred that some pretext for postponing the trip could have been found.

Perhaps because of the unfortunate timing, the visit was kept low-key and took place with little fanfare, although it was extensively treated in the domestic press. The contents of meetings were not disclosed, and, unusually, there were no comments to the press later. Muhammad broke the Ramadan fast with Secretary of State John Kerry at his Georgetown home on June 13, but even then, upon his arrival, there was no word on when he would meet with the President, if indeed at all. This prompted speculation that he was being snubbed by Obama, a not unlikely scenario given the optics in the present circumstances. There was some talk that Muhammad would be fobbed off on lower officials instead of enjoying a White House audience, but ultimately he did meet with Obama on June 17. Earlier in the week he met with members of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan, the chairman and members of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, and the Secretary of Commerce.

the diplomats squirm
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