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.