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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Exclusive: Saudi Crown Prince to meet Pence and McMaster, tech and film industry in US

Cultural and business ties expected to overshadow political agenda on Mohammed bin Salman's two-and-a-half week visit

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will travel to the United States on March 19, where he will meet with technology companies and the film industry as well as US President Donald Trump and American politicians. Will Oliver / Bloomberg
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will travel to the United States on March 19, where he will meet with technology companies and the film industry as well as US President Donald Trump and American politicians. Will Oliver / Bloomberg

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected to be received by both United States Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser HR McMaster in addition to President Donald Trump on his visit to Washington.

The Crown Prince's meeting with Mr Trump on Tuesday will be followed by a dinner hosted by Mr Pence on Wednesday, and another by Mr McMaster later in the week, sources in Washington told The National. Reports surfaced last week that Mr McMaster may be on his way out of the White House, but spokeswoman Sarah Sanders denied any changes happening at the National Security Council.

The Saudi embassy in Washington has not released a schedule of Crown Prince Mohammed's two-and-half-week visit to the US. But according to a tentative itinerary confirmed by US sources, he will arrive in the US capital late on Monday, where he will spend three days in official meetings, including with Mr Trump at the Oval Office on Tuesday and with Congressional leaders from both parties. On Friday, he may head to New York to attend business meetings and a US-Saudi forum.

After New York, the Saudi Crown Prince may travel to Boston, Seattle, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Houston. The schedule and order of these stops is subject to change, the sources said. In Boston, Prince Mohammed, 32, will visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University campuses. On the West Coast, he is expected to meet the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates; Apple chief executive Tim Cook; and business leaders from Uber, Google, Facebook and other companies.

In Los Angeles, the Saudi Crown Prince, who ended a 35-year ban on cinemas in his country in December as part of wide-ranging social change, is expected to meet major names from the film industry to encourage investments in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia hosted its first jazz festival last month, and is witnessing a boom in contemporary art exhibitions.

The first days of Prince Mohammed's visit are likely to be devoted to regional issues, particularly the push to counter Iran, the war in Yemen, and the Middle East peace process. Mr Trump’s team is preparing to unveil a new peace plan to resume negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Last week, the White House hosted a summit to address the worsening humanitarian and economic situation in Gaza that was attended by Arab, European, UN and Israeli officials.

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Regional sources told The National that while the US administration was pushing for a swift resolution to the Qatar dispute during the Prince Mohammed's visit, this is no longer a realistic expectation. While on a visit to Egypt this month, the Crown Prince likened the dispute with Qatar to the decades-long US embargo on Cuba, as one that "could last a long time".

A US delegation that included retired general Anthony Zinni and Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf affairs Tim Lenderking was not able to break the stalemate during a visit to the region two weeks ago.

Counter-terrorism and defence co-operation will also be on the agenda, with Prince Mohammed expected to meet Defence Secretary James Mattis, who has just returned from the Middle East.

However, the economic and cultural aspects of Prince Mohammed's visit are expected to top the political ones in Washington.

“Saudi Arabia is clearly courting investors, and also looking to partner with educational institutions like MIT and technology clusters to bring some of this expertise and innovation to the Kingdom,” said Karen Young, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf Institute.

She told The National that ties between Saudi Arabia and the US today in the economic sense are stronger than at any time in the past, owing partly to the “intricate connection, as Saudi Arabia is a large investor in US companies and US debt, and their currency is tied to the US dollar in value”.

The visit is Prince Mohammed’s second to Washington since Mr Trump assumed office, but his first since being made heir to the Saudi throne in June last year. He also visited the White House twice during the Obama administration.

On Sunday, CBS will broadcast Prince Mohammed's first interview with a US television outlet. In excerpts released earlier, the Saudi Crown Prince warned that his country will obtain a nuclear bomb if Iran is to develop one.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” he told CBS This Morning co-host Norah O’Donnell, in the interview for 60 Minutes.

The prince also stood by his comparison of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Adolf Hitler.

“No doubt,” he said. “Because [Khamenei] wants to expand. He wants to create his own project in the Middle East, very much like Hitler who wanted to expand at the time."

Prince Mohammed's US visit will be his third foreign trip this year. He made a three-day visit to Egypt on March 4 and was in Britain from March 7 to 9.