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Controversial Saudi prince known as MBS heads to White House and Silicon Valley

Controversial Saudi prince known as MBS heads to White House and Silicon Valley
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives for talks at 10 Downing Street, in central London, last week. He heads for Washington on Monday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Peddling the image of a new Saudi Arabia, controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives Monday in Washington on a cross-country trip to court government officials, Silicon Valley techies, big-buck investors and one of his biggest fans: President Trump.

He is a prince on a mission and in a hurry.

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The 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne already has curried favor with the Trump administration, winning over the president and his family, and played a key role in restoring the desert kingdom to favored-ally status after years of tension under President Obama.

The prince will meet with Trump at the White House on Tuesday and then is expected to travel over the next two weeks to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston and Houston, where he will confer with oil and energy executives.

Trump made his first overseas trip as president to Saudi Arabia last year, where he and the Saudi king, the crown prince's father, inked new agreements to fight terrorism, to counter Riyadh's bitter regional rival Iran and to plan billions of dollars in business deals, most of which have yet to materialize.

Mohammed is keen to take the next step: attracting American investment, business and expertise in a bid to diversify and modernize a sclerotic economy that historically has relied on oil and foreign guest workers. He is promoting a development blueprint he calls Saudi Vision 2030.

The White House meeting comes on the heels of Mohammed's vow to acquire nuclear weapons if Tehran is allowed to build them. Iran's nuclear program was largely dismantled under a 2015 accord, but Trump has threatened to scrap it unless Iran and other signatories agree to numerous revisions.

That has raised fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, already one of the world's most volatile regions.

The Trump administration "needs to make sure, in a region with many failed states, that this state, the most important in the region, remains stable," said Bernard Haykel, a Middle East expert at Princeton University. Mohammed "has a short time to make change. He's in a terrible hurry, but he could also hit the wall in a terrible way."

Known by his initials, MBS, the prince is widely viewed as a reformer at home. But his actions are progressive only in the Saudi context of an ultra-conservative society that practices a rigid form of Islam.

He has led changes that will allow women to drive in the kingdom, that will reopen cinemas and have allowed some foreign musicians to perform, and that have begun to permit more mixing between men and women at some public events.

He also has reined in the unpopular religious police, who enforce regulations, including attendance at prayers and strict public dress codes.

But numerous limitations remain. The social openings have benefited the growing number of Saudis ages 18 to 35, while maintaining restraints on political freedoms.

The prince is politically shrewd, said Steven Cook, a senior Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "So when the backlash does come, he will have a wellspring of support," he said.

Mohammed's brash style, impatience and lack of a deep bench of advisors already have rocked the Saudi royal family. Some Saudis say the Trump administration may be putting too much faith in a single person, one with vast ambition and few apparent limits.

Concerts by the Greek composer Yanni are "nice," said a veteran Saudi analyst who requested anonymity to freely express his views. "But at the same time, there has to be transparency, good governance, rule of law, accountability. These are missing."

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The prince already has stumbled in several episodes.

Last year, he ordered the detention of hundreds of super-wealthy businessmen, including members of the royal family. Many were confined for weeks at the glitzy Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh and released only after they had agreed to fork over cash and shares in their companies.

Saudi authorities portrayed the arrests as a crackdown on rampant corruption and said they recovered more than $106 billion in assets from targets of the investigations. But they did not release details of the financial settlements or the charges they faced, citing privacy concerns.

Although many Saudis welcomed the crackdown, others questioned whether the arrests were really a financial shakedown or an attempt to sideline the prince's potential rivals for the throne.

Norman Roule, a former CIA expert in the Middle East, said Mohammed's move showed a ruthless willingness to challenge the old guard. "He needs money," Roule said.

Even as Mohammed touted his anti-corruption drive and budget cuts, reports surfaced of his purchases of a $550-million, 440-foot yacht, complete with two helipads and a submarine hangar, from a Russian vodka tycoon; a $450-million painting by Leonardo da Vinci; and a $300-million chateau near Paris that has been called the world's most expensive home.

More serious was his decision, as Saudi defense minister, to intervene in the civil war in neighboring Yemen in a military campaign that humanitarian groups say has led to widespread atrocities.

Instead of a quick victory, Saudi Arabia is mired in a grinding war against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. Saudi airstrikes — some backed by U.S. intelligence and using U.S.-supplied munitions — have killed thousands of people, according to human rights groups, and have targeted schools, medical facilities and other civilian targets.

Mohammed will find a warm welcome at the White House, however. He began working with Trump's son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, shortly after the 2016 election, and the two orchestrated Trump's visit to the kingdom last year. Kushner's recent loss of a top-secret security clearance may limit his role, however.

That may leave the Trump administration ill-equipped to handle what appears to be a sea change in Saudi culture and politics. The State Department has no ambassador posted to Saudi Arabia, and other key Middle East posts are also empty.

While in America, Mohammed will focus heavily on his country's economic challenge. The plummeting price of oil, which fueled the Saudi economy for decades, has cut deeply into the national budget.

The prince's Saudi Vision 2030 plan includes provisions to sell off shares in the state oil monopoly, Saudi Aramco, and remake the kingdom into a hub of international business, finance and technology.

"Nothing he is doing is for the West," said Haykel, the Princeton scholar. "It's for himself. It happens to coincide with our interests and our ability to have influence in the region."

Wilkinson reported from Washington and Zavis from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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Twitter: @TracyKWilkinson

Twitter: @alexzavis

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