Mohammed bin Salman’s visit marked by protests against devastating war in Yemen and blockade of Qatar.
The Saudi leader, commonly referred to as MBS, will meet political and business leaders in Washington, New York, Silicon Valley and elsewhere, on a two-week tour across the country.
He is expected to meet US President Donald Trump on Tuesday, and hold other meetings with business leaders in the tech industry, as the crown prince seeks US investments to bolster a plan to diversify the Saudi economy.
But the main goal of the visit will be rehabilitating Saudi Arabia’s image in the minds of the US public, said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
“Saudi Arabia knows that it has an image problem,” Hashemi told Al Jazeera.
He said that is based in large part on the view “that Saudi Arabia is one of the countries in the Middle East that promotes a very ultra-conservative and authoritarian interpretation of Islam”.
To counter that, bin Salman is trying to present himself “as a breath of fresh air, a reformer … as a liberator of women, as someone who is pro-reform [and] as someone who is taking Saudi Arabia in a different direction”, Hashemi said.
“Saudi Arabia and its public relations firms and allies in the United States have already spent a lot of money in trying to present the new Saudi crown prince as a different form of political leader.”
The crown prince employed a similar public relations strategy on a three-day visit to the UK, where he met senior British officials, including Prime Minister Theresa May, as well as an array of British business and defence leaders.
The Saudi government also launched a public relations campaign before the visit, placing advertisements in British newspapers and on billboards.
A media push is also under way in the US, where CBS News’ 60 Minutes programme aired an exclusive interview with bin Salman on March 18, the night before his visit to Washington officially began.
But as in the UK, the crown prince’s visit is also expected to be met by protesters, with demonstrations planned in cities such as Boston and Washington, DC.
Bin Salman was appointed crown prince in June 2017, and he has since sought to market himself as a reformist who will modernise Saudi society. Simultaneously, he has consolidated his authority in the Gulf kingdom through questionable means.
He has been accused of cracking down on dissenting voices within the country and making rash decisions with wide-reaching geopolitical implications.
Bin Salman was the driving force behind a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, with the stated goal of rooting out rebel Houthi fighters. More than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed since the fighting began three years ago this week.
He also recently held senior ministers and other wealthy Saudi officials in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh for several months, in what was dubbed a probe into corruption.
Human rights groups accused the Saudi authorities of mistreating the detainees, however, and said the government’s tactics to tackle corruption “look more like extortion” and “make a mockery of the rule of law”.
Under bin Salman’s leadership, Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt, also cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in June 2017, resulting in a political crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The blockading countries accuse the Qatari government of supporting “terrorism” and interfering in their internal affairs. Doha denies the allegations, saying there is “no legitimate justification” for the blockade.
Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington, said bin Salman “wants to make sure that Saudi Arabia is still in the good grace of the [Trump] administration”.
wants to make sure that Saudi Arabia is still in the good grace of the [Trump] administration.”]
Politics and business
The US has maintained strong ties to Saudi Arabia for decades, cooperating on a wide range of military, political and economic issues, but the relationship has deepened during Trump’s presidency.
“I think there has been a significant and seismic shift in US policy towards Saudi Arabia under Donald Trump,” Hashemi said, explaining that the president and his foreign policy advisers are viewing the world and the Middle East “through a Saudi lens”.
“That’s why you’re seeing a much tighter and much more uncritical embrace of Saudi Arabia’s policies both in respect to Iran, the war in Yemen, the role that Qatar plays in the region, and also on the Israel-Palestine conflict,” he said.
Harb added that bin Salman is banking on the fact that Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, have both shown tremendous support for the Saudi government and its policies.
In response to slumping global oil prices, bin Salman unveiled a plan last year to attempt to wean Saudi Arabia off its dependence on the commodity.
Known as Vision 2030, the blueprint seeks to modernise the Saudi economy and build up diverse industries, including tourism.
Building ties to important US business leaders, including in finance and technology, is also a primary objective of bin Salman’s visit, said William Hartung, director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, a US public policy research group.
“I will be interested in what kind of response he gets from business leaders,” Hartung told Al Jazeera, “whether they embrace [him] or whether they keep their distance, how they react to his [Vision 2030] plan [and] whether they’re queasy about doing business”.
cabinet changes and changes in the inner foreign policy circle … on the eve of the arrival of the Saudi crown prince.”]
Hashemi added that the crown prince hopes “the US will be at the forefront” of the new investment opportunities created by his Vision 2030 plan.
“The trip, I think, has to be understood much more than simply an attempt to solidify political relations between two countries … It goes into the key sectors of the American economy that are also hoping to take advantage of [bin Salman’s] policies.”
Bin Salman will more than likely be courted by US companies who would like to see a planned public offering of the kingdom’s oil giant Aramco listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).
The kingdom plans to list up to five percent of Saudi Aramco in an initial public offering on an international stock exchange such as London, New York or Hong Kong.
But earlier this month Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih expressed concerns over the potential legal challenges of listing on the NYSE, pointing to lawsuits against other oil companies over their role in climate change, Reuters news agency reported.
Meanwhile, Hashemi said the removal of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state last week, and rumours reported in US media that the president is planning to fire ex-army general HR McMaster, his national security adviser, were “deeply concerning.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re hearing about these cabinet changes and changes in the inner foreign policy circle … on the eve of the arrival of the Saudi crown prince,” Hashemi said.
“These things are all coming together at a very critical time.”
War in Yemen
But a major challenge for bin Salman will be justifying Saudi Arabia’s role in the ongoing war in Yemen.
In 2015, Riyadh launched a military offensive against Houthi rebels after they took control of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and removed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia.
Human rights groups have accused Saudi-led coalition forces of indiscriminately bombing civilians and hospitals, schools and other infrastructure. The fighting has displaced about two million Yemenis.
Late last month, three US senators introduced a motion calling for an end to US military involvement in the war in Yemen, that has not been approved by Congress.
That US involvement – in support of Saudi-led forces – includes “providing to the Saudi-led coalition aerial targeting assistance, intelligence sharing, and mid-flight aerial refueling”, the motion reads, as well as help in aerial targeting and the coordination of military and intelligence activities.
Hartung, who also authored the paper Trump’s Dangerous Love Affair with Saudi Arabia and its Impacts on Mideast Security, said that passing the Senate resolution would provide “a note of realism” to the US-Saudi relationship.
“Instead of [bin Salman’s] public relations version of who he is and what he’s trying to do, the US Senate would address the most egregious and damaging policy that he’s pursued since he’s consolidated power,” he said.
Hartung added: “I think the question is, how critical will the media be? Will Yemen be an afterthought or will it be front and centre in the conversation?”