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Trump wins Saudi praise for ‘turning point’ after meeting prince

In this Nov. 11, 2015 file photo, Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a summit of Arab and Latin American leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HASAN JAMALI/AP

By NAFEESA SYEED | Bloomberg News (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 13, 2017

WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia claimed “a historic turning point” in relations with the U.S. after President Donald Trump welcomed Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the White House.

“Relations had undergone a period of difference of opinion,” a senior adviser to the crown prince said in a statement after Tuesday’s meeting. “However, today’s meeting has put things on the right track, and marked a significant shift in relations, across all political, military, security and economic fields.”

The effusive praise for Trump’s “great understanding” of U.S.-Saudi relations reflects the eagerness among Sunni-led Arab nations for a renewed alliance after deep strains with former President Barack Obama, who crafted the 2015 nuclear deal with their Shiite rival Iran.

The new administration sees Saudi Arabia “as a crucial part of the Middle East and an important country to have a positive relationship with — even if there are irritants in the relationship,” said Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the institute’s Gulf and Energy Policy Program. “This is at odds with the Obama administration, so they want to make that clear distinction.”

Salman, who is also the son of King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman and his country’s defense minister, had lunch with Trump and aides at the White House on Tuesday. That’s a higher-profile meeting than an initially planned photo opportunity, according to Henderson.

The 31-year-old deputy crown prince’s visit follows a trip he made to Washington in June after unveiling his Saudi Vision 2030, with plans to modernize the world’s biggest oil exporter into an economy no longer reliant on crude. Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Aramco, is also planning potentially the world’s biggest initial public offering, with as much as $100 billion in shares expected to be sold.

Providing a talking point likely to be welcomed by Trump’s administration, the Saudi statement said Saudi Arabia doesn’t believe that the U.S. president’s restriction on travel from six mostly Sunni nations “is targeting Muslim countries or the religion of Islam” and is aimed at “preventing terrorists” from entering the U.S.

The Saudis also said Trump and the deputy crown prince “share the same views on the gravity of the Iranian expansionist moves in the region.”

Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni-led Gulf Arab states have had “positive anticipation” toward the Trump administration, especially when it comes to containing what they see as Shiite Iran’s malign influence in the region, according to Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. In February, the Trump administration said it was putting the Islamic Republic “on notice” after it carried out a missile test days earlier.

The Trump administration also sees an opportunity to bring “reconciliation” among Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states with Israel, in an attempt to unite allies against the threat of Iran, Henderson said.

In a further sign of outreach to the Gulf allies, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met at the State Department Tuesday with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.

Gulf countries generally considered Obama aloof and opposed his administration’s diplomacy that resulted in the agreement lifting many economic sanctions on Iran in return for curbing its nuclear activities. In an article published in The Atlantic magazine last year, Obama complained about Arab allies that urge the U.S. to act but won’t “put any skin in the game,” calling them “free riders.”

After the frustrations with Obama, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are now responding to Trump’s “more personalized foreign policy,” including his son-in-law Jared Kushner playing a prominent role with Gulf Arab allies, Diwan said during a speech in Washington.

Prince Mohammed’s visit is a sign that Gulf countries are “jumping on early in the boat to try to build those close ties that they think will serve them well,” Diwan said.

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(Margaret Talev contributed to this report.)

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©2017 Bloomberg News

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