It hasn’t been hyped as much as most state visits from major allies, but this week’s tour of the US by Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, is seen as extremely important by administration officials, who are both trying to court his favor and fearing the possibility he takes the crown.
Bin Salman was never America’s “plan” for Saudi Arabia. His father King Salman, an 80-year-old who only took the crown last year, wasn’t in the plans either, inheriting only because of a surprise death of his brother. He also reportedly isn’t in great health.
The US had spent years getting on the good side of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the 55-year-old presumptive heir, but US officials now believe his health is failing too, in part related to injuries sustained in a failed 2009 assassination attempt.
That puts the 30-year-old Bin Salman, the son of the king, in a position where he might will inherit, and soon, and that scares the crap out of a lot of US officials. Bin Salman is seen as reckless, throwing his weight behind failed policies during the collapse of oil prices as economic czar, backing the execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr despite the huge backlash among Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority, and also being a leading force, as defense minister, behind the disastrous war in Yemen.
The US has made keeping Saudi Arabia “stable” a central point of its Middle East policy, and has done that by being very cozy with a long line of aging rulers who aren’t big risk-takers. Bin Nayef fit that role like a glove, and the US was very happy to see him as crown prince. Bin Salman, by contrast, is seen as young and brash and has a mind for major economic reforms.
That’s got US officials gritting their teeth and trying to make friends with him, hoping that on the very real chance he gets power they’ll at least have his ear to steer the reforms. Failing that, US officials fear he could make major missteps leading Saudi Arabia, at least the Saudi Arabia the US likes, to ruin.