The Cable

After U.S. Arrival, Saudi Prince Remains Off White House Schedule

It was billed by Riyadh’s state media as a trip for Saudi Arabia’s powerful deputy crown prince to meet with President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials. But now that Prince Mohammed bin Salman has arrived in Washington, it’s still unclear if the president or any White House officials will meet with him, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - FEBRUARY 11:  Saudi Arabia's Defense Minister Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud attends the anti-Daesh coalition conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on February 11, 2016. The counter-Deash defense ministers conference, in Brussels, comprises 27 nations, including the United States, that provide force contributions to the counter-Daesh campaign. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - FEBRUARY 11: Saudi Arabia's Defense Minister Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud attends the anti-Daesh coalition conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on February 11, 2016. The counter-Deash defense ministers conference, in Brussels, comprises 27 nations, including the United States, that provide force contributions to the counter-Daesh campaign. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It was billed by Riyadh’s state media as a trip for Saudi Arabia’s powerful deputy crown prince to meet with President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials. But now that Prince Mohammed bin Salman has arrived in Washington, it’s still unclear if the president or any White House officials will meet with him, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

“No confirmation at this time for any WH meetings,” White House spokesperson Dew Tiantawach told Foreign Policy.

The absence of any scheduled meetings with even National Security Adviser Susan Rice is fueling speculation among Gulf experts about a diplomatic snub. It comes amid sharp policy differences between Washington and Riyadh, and unease among U.S. officials about overplaying alliances with the 30-year-old prince, who some view as locked in a power struggle with the older Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

“Very unusual for the Saudis to come out saying he is meeting with Obama and White House not confirming it,” said David Ottaway, a Saudi expert at the Wilson Center in Washington. “They certainly knew he was coming.”

If the White House needed a diplomatic excuse to bail on the younger prince, who also holds the title of defense minister, it could easily and understandably claim to be more immediately focused on last weekend’s deadly shootings in Orlando, where Obama will travel Thursday to express support for the victims. But U.S. officials have remained mum about the scheduling standoff. “We’re not going to comment on conjecture,” said Tiantawach.

Prince Mohammed will meet with top State Department and Pentagon officials as he promotes plans to overhaul the Saudi economy, the world’s biggest oil exporter. He will also travel to California for meetings with Silicon Valley executives.

The Saudi royal court said in a statement that Prince Mohammed would seek ways of strengthening bilateral relations with Washington, which have taken a sharp downturn in recent years. Riyadh wants the Obama administration to more aggressively confront its archrival, Iran, for what Saudis describe as undermining its Arab neighbors.

Riyadh is also a chief backer of Sunni rebels who are trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s five-year civil war. Saudi Arabia wants the U.S. to provide more sophisticated weapons and support to the Sunni militants.

Yet Saudi Arabia faces growing criticism in a larger U.S. debate over ultraconservative forms of Islam, including Wahhabism, that some have linked to violent behavior.

After this week’s killing of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton delivered a speech on Monday calling out a handful of Arab countries including Saudi Arabia. “It is long past time for the Saudis” to prevent “their citizens from funding extremist organizations,” she said.

“And they should stop supporting radical schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path toward extremism,” she added in remarks that also called out the Kuwaitis and Qataris.

Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the U.S. Abdullah al-Saud on Monday condemned “in the strongest terms the attack on innocent people” and expressed his “deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims.”

Mohammed bin Salman is the son of Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman. An aggressive publicity hound and inspirational figure for many Saudi youths, the defense minister came to prominence in 2015 as the architect of Riyadh’s military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. In a sign of the Obama administration’s concerns over the civilian death toll in the Yemen conflict, the White House recently blocked the transfer of cluster bombs to Riyadh, citing reports of their use in civilian areas.

Senior U.S. officials, especially at the Central Intelligence Agency, are said to prefer dealing with the older Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who has decades of experience working on intelligence and counterterrorism issues with the United States.

“I think they still favor the other Mohammed because of his long experience in security matters,” Ottaway said of Mohammed bin Salman, speculating on why the White House wasn’t rolling out the red carpet for the deputy prince. “Could be Obama doesn’t want to be used by Mohammed to promote his grab for power.”

Simon Henderson, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he viewed the diplomatic standoff as a scheduling issue “with minor games of bluff” rather than a “snub.”

“The Saudis were wanting POTUS,” he said.The White House was suggesting Susan Rice and the secretary of defense with a POTUS drop-by.”

“I don’t think anyone in the White House actually likes bin Salman,” he added. “The secretary of defense certainly doesn’t. But you have to deal with him.”

Whatever the case, officials will have much to discuss with the ongoing wars in Yemen and Syria and the expected release of 28 redacted pages of congressional inquiry into 9/11 that some have said accuse Saudi officials have involvement in those attacks. A Defense Department official told FP Prince Mohammed would meet with senior Pentagon officials this week. The prince met with Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday evening. A source close to the Saudis said the prince will hold meetings with congressional leaders in both parties this week and will also meet with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

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