Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is showing off the new face of Saudi Arabia in the U.S. He has emphasized women’s rights in his country, long known for enforcing strict gender rules; made much of his plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil, on which it is heavily reliant; and is pitching the kingdom as an investment destination to CEOs in Silicon Valley. But in Washington, where the crown prince met with President Trump on Tuesday, the conversation was mostly about what the U.S.-Saudi relationship has for been about decades: mutual geopolitical interests.
“The White House visit, the speeches, it’s kabuki theater,” said Thomas Lippman, a journalist who covered Saudi Arabia for decades who is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute, told me ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. “They’re going to meet, they’re going to say nice words, and they’re going to talk about fighting terrorism, and they’re going to announce deals that may or may not ever happen. We’ve seen this a hundred times. What I’m looking for is what happens on the nuclear cooperation agreement—if anything.” And indeed, the meeting Tuesday bore this out, while leaving unanswered the nuclear question.
At issue is whether the U.S. will waive section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act for Saudi Arabia so it can sell the kingdom nuclear reactors. Under that section, countries to which the U.S. transfers nuclear material and technology will, among other conditions, guarantee that they won’t use that technology to develop nuclear weapons. They must also get U.S. consent to enrich or reprocess nuclear material obtained as a result of any agreement with the U.S.
Enter Saudi Arabia. The kingdom wants to build two nuclear reactors because of a severe energy shortage it has, despite its vast oil reserves. There are fears its rising domestic electricity consumption will erode its ability to export oil, and thus severely damage its economy. The U.S. wants to sell Saudi Arabia the reactors it needs for its internal energy requirements, but the Saudis also want to retain the ability to enrich their own uranium and reprocess the spent fuel from the reactor—both of which would give them the ability to produce nuclear weapons at some point. U.S. lawmakers are wary of the Saudi demands.
Last month, Energy Secretary Rick Perry met with Saudi officials in London, but no announcement was made about whether the impasse was resolved. (Perry was present Tuesday at the White House meeting between Trump and Mohammed.) Westinghouse and other U.S. companies are reportedly in talks on building the Saudi reactors, but the kingdom is also talking to France, Russia, and China, who could also theoretically supply nuclear technology, but do not apply the same kinds of conditions the U.S. does.
“It’s going to be very difficult for the kingdom to accept terms that are worse that what [President] Obama gave the Iranians,” Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, told me. “Because, after all, the kingdom is an ally and friend of America and Iran was an adversary.”
The nuclear deal with Iran allows the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium to a level lower than what is needed for a nuclear weapon. That condition lapses in 2031 (a fact critics of the agreement cite in their opposition to the deal). The Saudis are seeking something similar—and hoping the Trump administration will accede.
“Saudi Arabia has a built-in preference for American for obvious reasons,” Shahibi said, citing the decades of close cooperation between the two countries. “But it has options. And I think that the Trump administration realizes that.”
But Saudi Arabia’s motives are a concern. Mohammed told CBS’s 60 Minutes that while his country didn’t seek a nuclear bomb, “without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb we will follow suit as soon as possible.” Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf and energy policy program at the Washington Institute, told me there were only a few reasons a country would want to be able to enrich its own uranium.
“If you were Denmark, it’s because you’re a proud nation and you want to be able to master all aspects of the nuclear cycle,” he said. “Saudi Arabia is not Denmark. It’s Saudi Arabia. And it’s a hint that we want to go and make nuclear weapons.”
The fact there has been little publicly said about a nuclear deal could suggest that Saudi demands remain a sticking point. Meetings such as those between Mohammed and Trump are often weeks—if not months—in the making. But, said Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “This is a conversation between ... a uniquely powerful Saudi and the president. … [T]hey might raise the subject particularly if the president moves away from the” Iran deal.
Trump has called that agreement “the worst … in history” and has vowed to walk away from it. U.S. diplomats are hoping to persuade other signatories to the deal—Britain, France, Germany, the EU, Russia, and China—that the agreement must be strengthened by May, when the president faces his next deadline to waive sanctions imposed on Iran, as mandated by the deal. Trump says he will not extend such a waiver.
The shadow of Iran might loom over the nuclear-energy ambitions of Saudi Arabia, its main rival in the region, but it also plays an outsized role in other regional crises. Iran and its actions in the neighborhood—its support of Houthis in Yemen, the Assad regime in Syria, Shia groups in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon—have been part of the conversations between Mohammed and Trump. “Iran has not been treating that part of the world or the world itself appropriately,” Trump said Tuesday, with Mohammed sitting beside him. “A lot of bad things are happening in Iran.”
Henderson told me: “You can agree on great themes, which MBS sees as being Iran, Iran, and Iran, and although President Trump doesn’t quite see it in such simplistic terms, he can sort of agree with the rhetoric. But the ... significance to my mind is the extent of agreement on minutiae.”
Henderson cited war in Yemen, where the Saudis and Iranians are engaged in a brutal proxy war that shows no sign of ending; the resolution of the Qatar crisis, where the Saudis and other Arab countries have imposed a blockade on Qatar, a U.S. ally that’s now being aided by Iran and others; ways to stop “Iran’s regional mischief”; the stalled Mideast peace process; and terrorist groups. Those issues are clearly destined to defy short-term progress. And publicly at least, the Saudi crown prince has made his trip to the U.S. about economics—not geopolitics. He has pledged to transform the Saudi economy away from its reliance on oil in the next 12 years, by 2030, and he has embarked on a powerful—if controversial—agenda of domestic change.
“From the Saudi viewpoint, one of the key questions is U.S. help or encouragement in getting investment and support for the 2030 plan,” Cordesman told me. “Getting a strong presidential endorsement of the crown prince's trip to the U.S. to encourage investment in Saudi Arabia, that, I think, could be something that could be done.”