President Trump on Tuesday promised the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, to help push through long-stalled arms deals for the desert kingdom, saying the transactions would bring billions of dollars in investment and new jobs to the United States.
Trump gave an effusive welcome to the young prince on his first trip to the United States as heir apparent, 10 months after the president's own sumptuous reception in the kingdom. Mohammed was opening a two-week, coast-to-coast swing, including stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as he seeks business ties with American oil, technology and entertainment companies.
As the 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne began his PR offensive, however, Congress was debating reducing military aid to Saudi Arabia because of alleged atrocities in the war in Yemen. That country has sustained heavy bombardment by Saudi jet fighters using U.S. intelligence, and more than 10,000 civilians have been killed since 2014 while millions more have been displaced or face starvation, according to human rights groups.
Neither the president nor the prince mentioned that debate in their public comments. Trump promised Mohammed delivery on a sizable new arsenal including C-130 transport aircraft, Bradley armored personnel carriers, anti-submarine Poseidon jets and air missile defense systems.
Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia in May on his first overseas trip as president, and boasted that he'd come away with billions of dollars in business deals. Little has materialized, however. Tuesday's discussions seemed aimed at making those transactions happen.
Using show-and-tell-style poster boards as he sat in the Oval Office with Mohammed, who was dressed in his royal robes and checkered kaffiyeh headdress, Trump pointed to lists of the equipment and a map of the United States where he said thousands of jobs would be created. Those states were colored in red; California was one of them.
The president, who typically characterizes his foreign policy in personal terms, making it more about his relations with his counterpart than about relations between their countries, said of the crown prince, "We've become very good friends over a fairly short period of time."
"Saudi Arabia has been a very great friend and a big purchaser of equipment and lots of other things," Trump said.
As he has done frequently, and unusually for a sitting U.S. president, Trump publicly criticized his predecessor, President Obama, in the foreign leader's presence. He noted that Obama had a testier relationship with the Saudi government; Obama administration officials often took Saudi Arabia to task for human rights violations, including in Yemen, and for repression of women and lagging contributions to regional peacekeeping efforts.
"The relationship now is probably as good as it's really ever been," Trump said, and "will probably only get better."
After the public portion of the meeting, Trump and Mohammed and their delegations met privately and had a lunch of halibut and roasted cauliflower. Trump was accompanied by Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, who has built his own relationship with the crown prince, and other officials. No female officials were included in either country's delegation.
The two governments share intense disdain of Iran. Shiite Iran is Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia's archrival in the region. It is the Saudis' belief that Iran is backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen that has drawn the kingdom into what has turned out to be a quagmire — and something of a disaster for Mohammed, who also serves as his country's defense minister.
Aides said that Trump and the prince discussed the landmark 2015 multinational deal that has curbed Iran's nuclear-power production. Trump is threatening to scuttle it in May, having assailed it throughout his presidential campaign.
Amid the White House meeting, the Senate was debating legislation that would reduce U.S. military supplies to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen until the humanitarian crises there is eased. Senators sent the measure to a committee for further drafting.
"Congress has a constitutional responsibility to authorize war — which is why I support this resolution that halts U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen," Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said via Twitter on Tuesday. The move, he said, "is long overdue."
The Pentagon argues that helping Saudi fighter pilots with targeting information based on American intelligence reduces civilian casualties, but there is no evidence for that.
Mohammed afterward visited Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers against suspending any military materiel. Saudi officials also sought to influence reporters.
"What would you do if militias tried to take over Mexico and started lobbing missiles at you? Sit there and take it?" Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said in a meeting with Washington journalists, using an analogy that is a frequent talking point among senior Saudi officials.
The alleged atrocities in Yemen, including the bombings of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, have made some American companies skittish about entering into business with the Saudis.
The desert kingdom is also known for rampant corruption, another concern for business entrepreneurs, and one that Mohammed is working to allay.
Portraying it as an anti-corruption campaign, Mohammed last fall rounded up and detained hundreds of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest princes and millionaires, holding them in Riyadh's Ritz Carlton Hotel and forcing many to give up billions of dollars and shares in their companies.
The crown prince, commonly known by his initials, MBS, has also relaxed some of the kingdom's strictest social prohibitions, promising to allow women to drive cars and reopening theaters. While Mohammed wins praise for those steps, they have not translated to political freedoms. And he is still seen as inexperienced, hasty and without a deep bench of seasoned advisors.
"So far he only believes in himself," said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi political columnist who spoke this week at the nonpartisan Wilson Center think tank in Washington. The prince is a visionary who wants to truly change the country, Khashoggi added, "but he is not allowing dissent."