This coming weekend, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz arrives in Washington for his first visit as reigning monarch and talks with President Barack Obama. Heading his sizeable entourage is his son, Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman, along with a sizeable entourage of high-ranking economic and financial figures, representing the oil kingdom’s public and private sectors.
When he last visited the US capital in 2012, Salman was still crown prince. His hosts and the local media were conspicuously unimpressed by his personality and allowed exaggerated rumors to circulate about his low state of physical and mental health.
Since he ascended the throne in January, the US President, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter have each called in at the palace in Riyadh. But his official visit to Washington, which has important symbolic and strategic significance, comes after some delay.
This could be explained by the reforms and government reshuffle which kept Salman busy early in his reign – and which strikingly refuted rumors of his mental incompetence; or else by his reluctance to show the slightest sign of support for the nuclear deal the Obama administration negotiated with Iran.
Salman seeks joint US backing in Yemen and Syria
But since then, the Saudi king has built up the reputation of a strong and resolute ruler on several fronts.
Less than one year on the throne, he has taken care of a host of urgent domestic affairs, including the order of the royal succession, the crown’s relations with the clerical establishment, and steps for easing unemployment among restive young Saudis.
He has also led Saudi Arabia into a foreign military intervention for putting down Iran’s Yemeni proxies, the Houthi insurgents, as well as subscribing to and funding Arab world operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIS.
(See separate article on the establishment of the new Hashemite Army)
Salman arrives in Washington after the president has assured himself of the unhindered passage of his nuclear deal with Iran through Congress. Although a bone of contention between the two leaders, it will no longer be an impediment to an amicable discussion of their common strategic interests.
The Saudi king will not neglect to hold the American president to the mandatory inspection clauses of the deal with Iran, but he is likely to accentuate even more the importance of restraining Iran from meddling in domestic Arab affairs, especially those of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
If he obtains from Obama a commitment to act jointly in Yemen and Syria, Salman will regard his visit as a success.
The king introduces his chosen successor to the White House
On the question of oil, the US and Saudi Arabia are both interested in cooperating on prices.
Riyadh’s policy in recent months has been to create a glut on oil markets, with the rest of OPEC tagging along, claiming that this tactic was necessary to preserve their share in the market.
Saudi’s main goal was in fact to give the US a strong disincentive for developing oil and gas by fracking.
Salman and Obama may reach some understandings on this, although they are unlikely to go as far as they would wish for jointly controlling the international oil market.
The American and Saudi rulers also have plenty of economic issues to discuss. The economic-financial delegation from Riyadh brings along a large open check worth hundreds of billions of dollars to cover a decade of American projects for developing the oil kingdom’s energy, transportation, medical care, education and other resources and infrastructure.
This collaboration will be discussed in detail at the forthcoming US-Saudi Investment Forum when it convenes in Washington on Sept. 4.
The king will also use the visit to personally introduce his son, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed, whom he hopes will bypass Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef as his successor to the throne.