- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pushed for deeper U.S. cooperation in the war on terrorism during a lunch at the White House on Tuesday, the first such meeting President Trump has hosted with an Arab Muslim leader since assuming office.

Administration officials provided few details, but sources close to the Saudi royal family said the 31-year-old prince, who serves as the kingdom’s defense minister while overseeing a major overhaul of the kingdom’s oil-based economy, was eager to express solidarity with Mr. Trump’s tough rhetoric toward the Islamic State and Iran.

Iran’s Shiite-dominated government represents Saudi Arabia’s biggest rival in the Middle East, and analysts say Riyadh and its Sunni Gulf Arab allies are hopeful that Mr. Trump will reverse what they saw as a dangerous shift by the Obama administration toward warmer relations with Tehran.

“The prince is really here to reinvigorate the 50-year-old strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and try to take it to a new level, especially on counterterrorism, but also with regard to Iran,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi businessman and head of the Arabia Foundation, a newly formed Washington think tank focused on Middle East geopolitics.

Prince Mohammed, widely seen as being groomed to take over the throne in Riyadh, was also expected to push for an expansion of U.S.-Saudi economic ties as part of a growing campaign to diversify the nation’s economy.

The ambitious — if impatient — son of 81-year-old Saudi King Salman became the face of a “Saudi Vision 2030” campaign last year, launching the long-term blueprint aimed at guiding the kingdom through economic turbulence brought on by years of low global oil prices.

Vision 2030 calls for a partial privatization of Saudi Aramco, the storied state oil company, which Prince Mohammed has said will be transformed into an energy company that he expects to be valued at $2 trillion to $3 trillion, with roughly 5 percent listed on the stock market.

The prince is seen as seeking to represent a rising generation of Saudi royals to younger citizens of the kingdom, at a moment when the drop in oil revenue has created fear of widespread unemployment and an end to Riyadh’s once-vast social program spending.

Although few details of the talks emerged from the brief public sessions, Mohammed smiled with Mr. Trump at lunch after a meeting in the Oval Office that was attended by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and several top administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Defense Secretary James Mattis was expected to meet separately with Mohammed this week.

Saudi Arabia is also the top buyer of American-made arms, and key issues topping Mohammed’s agenda include the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition supported by Washington has been bombing Iran-backed Houthi tribal forces for nearly two years.

Riyadh is also part of the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State in Syria.

Mr. Shihabi said the prince would likely emphasize Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the campaign against the group by touting what he calls an expanding counterextremist messaging program run by officials in Riyadh.

The government is “finding all the radical imams on the web that have a following and making sure there are voices that are there to respond to them and counter their radical messaging with moderate messaging,” Mr. Shihabi said. He said Riyadh hopes to find broad areas of agreement with the U.S. administration.

“It’s not just the pendulum shift on Iran; it’s also that Trump has surrounded himself with seasoned operators who know the territory of the Middle East and understand that Iran and its Revolutionary Guard have an objective to undercut U.S. interests by bringing down the established order in the Persian Gulf,” Mr. Shihabi said.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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