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Saudi Arabia’s crown prince will have to do more to change perceptions in the West

Mohammed bin Salman’s tour to the United States and Europe is to attract investment and project the image of a reformer. But first he’ll have to address the tensions in West Asia, most importantly the war in Yemen

editorials Updated: Apr 10, 2018 16:04 IST
Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (centre) poses for camera during his visit to Google, Silicon Valley, April 6, 2018
Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (centre) poses for camera during his visit to Google, Silicon Valley, April 6, 2018(REUTERS)

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the de facto ruler of the oil-rich desert kingdom, landed in Paris on a two-day visit. He starts his European tour from France after spending about three weeks in the United States.

His engagements while in the US, from meeting Google’s Sergey Brin to Apple’s Tim Cook to Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, attempted to reinforce the image of the crown prince as a reformer. He even traded the traditional Saudi Arabian keffiyah (headdress) and bisht (gold-trimmed cloak) for a blazer and trousers.

If on the one hand, there is an attempt to change Saudi Arabia, on the other, Salman has to deal in a West Asia that is changing geopolitically and is thus unstable. A politically and militarily assertive Saudi Arabia has seen Riyadh’s ties with Doha deteriorate and flashpoints with Tehran are being witnessed across the region, the most deadly being in Yemen.

Amid these tensions, there is a sliver of hope that Saudi Arabia-Israel ties might be improving. This was why Salman’s interview to The Atlantic, in which he said, “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land”, gave the impression of a breakthrough in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Of course it is important given that Salman is the first high-level Saudi Arabian official to make such a public statement, but what dampened the optimism is what he said next: “But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.” With right-wing political voices getting increasingly hawkish in Israel and a crumbling Palestinian political order, a peace agreement is hard to imagine. Salman articulated what Saudi Arabia has been trying to achieve since 2002 through the Arab Peace Initiative — a two-state solution.

Salman’s statement aligns with the views of the Trump administration. It adds to the paranoia in Washington of Iran as a rogue state — in the interview Salman compared Iran’s supreme leader to Hitler. It also diverts attention from the three-year war he is waging in Yemen — a conflict which the UN has referred to as “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time”.

Protests have welcomed Salman in many western nations. They were seen in London when he was visiting in March. There were protests in many places in the US and now in France. Clearly, Salman will have to do more to change perceptions and bring peace to the region.