Saudi crown prince embarks on foreign tour to woo leaders
Saudi Arabia’s heir in waiting, , has embarked on his first trip abroad, a three-country visit with stops in Cairo, London and New York that aims to press his credentials on a wary global stage.
When he arrives in London on Wednesday, Prince Mohammed will be received as head-of-state-in-waiting, and will travel to Windsor Castle for a dinner with the Queen. As a senior member of , he will also arrive with a twin agenda: as head of a lucrative trade mission, and as a leader looking for validation after a chequered debut year in foreign affairs.
The 32-year-old crown prince’s international debut follows one of the most extraordinary periods in the country’s modern history, a time of overhaul at home and upheaval in the region.
The sudden projection of power has shaken friend and foe alike, leaving them scrambling to understand what drives Prince Mohammed, who has been given almost every aspect of a country known for almost 40 years for sclerotic management and ingrained reluctance to all but token change.
Riyadh’s involvement in feuds with and Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, and an ongoing war in Yemen that has claimed at least 10,000 lives and an estimated $8bn (£5.8bn) a month from the Saudi treasury, have left it bogged down without obvious exits. Its overarching policy of deterring Iran from consolidating inroads it has made into the Arab world – particularly since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq – has not succeeded, so far, according to senior figures in the Saudi capital. By the reckoning of some regional leaders, it has even gone backwards.
“He has to know that pronouncing something does not make it happen,” said one senior member of the royal family. “Beyond that, he needs to learn that even when you do act, you need to have a real strategy and the drive of a team that believes in what you’re doing and is empowered to see it through.”
Among Riyadh’s halls of power, fealty to the new leader is widespread. “But it’s not necessarily heartfelt,” said a senior member of a Saudi thinktank. “It will be if he can deliver, but there is so much going on now that people aren’t sure how that leaves him.”
No one in a position of authority, and few on the capital’s streets, were prepared to offer anything more than a muted critique of Prince Mohammed’s agenda. The war in is regularly framed as “a campaign to stop Hezbollah from entrenching to our east”. Despite an effective stalemate in the decimated country, and a blockade that the UN says has left more than 8 million people on the verge of famine, there is broad support for the war – as there is for efforts to deter Iran. “They want to take over the holy shrines,” said Abdullah Sharafi, a trader from Dammam. “If his highness did not so something, they would have overrun us.”
Elsewhere, in diplomatic and regional circles, Prince Mohammed’s embrace of Donald Trump and his embattled son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been described as “a beginner’s mistake”, which has undermined efforts to counter .
“He sees Kushner and Trump turn up, mixing big business with political power – using their positions for commercial gain, and he sees a way of doing business that people in this region are familiar with,” said a senior diplomat. “He doesn’t have the experience to know that both of them are on extremely thin ice and atypical of America.”
Saudi Arabia’s enemies had long regarded it as a US proxy that would not act unilaterally in any dispute, preferring for Washington to do its public bidding, while it employed its trusted tools of coercion and cash. So when Prince Mohammed summoned Hariri to late last year and told him to resign as prime minister, rattled regional leaders sent envoys on frantic missions to Washington, Paris and London, who all urged the crown prince to back down.
Britain was so alarmed at the potential for the Hariri feud to escalate into a flare-up, which could have drawn in Iran and Israel, and even Saudi itself, that it dispatched a delegation of senior MI6 officers and diplomats to Riyadh to offer counsel.
Chastened by the experience, both he and King Salman received Hariri in Riyadh on Saturday, a day before the prince departed for Egypt, the first stop on his tour. But not before Hariri, bereft of a patron, had moved closer to the Iranian orbit in Lebanon’s byzantine political scene. Qatar, meanwhile, is showing little sign of bowing to a Saudi-initiated diplomatic and trade blockade over claims that its ties to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood were subversive.
After nine months, Riyadh’s tiny northern neighbour continues to bleed slowly through its reserves rather than accede to the long list of demands made of it. “And we don’t look strong because of it,” said the Saudi thinktank official. “Getting out of this one is becoming important for the crown prince. He wants to project strength, but if they stare us down, we don’t look strong.
“The problem is that the Iran issue is very real and all three fronts reflect that. We cannot lose this narrative. I hope he gets some good advice.”