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Saudi prince's White House visit continues Kushner courtship

When Donald Trump stepped into the White House in 2017, the President gave his son-in-law-turned-senior-aide Jared Ku...

Posted: Mar 20, 2018 5:03 PM
Updated: Mar 20, 2018 5:03 PM

When Donald Trump stepped into the White House in 2017, the President gave his son-in-law-turned-senior-aide Jared Kushner considerable power in trying to strike a deal for Middle East peace. Enter Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmans, another anointed son looking to make a name for himself after his father gave him considerable power.

The two have fostered a close relationship for months, White House officials tell CNN, but, to date, it is Prince bin Salman -- known more informally as MBS -- who has taken his charge and looked to remake the country he will likely someday lead. Kushner, on the other hand, has been ensnared in considerable drama inside the White House and lost some of his standing because of an inability to secure a permanent security clearance.

Even still, Kushner is expected to play a key role when MBS, a leader the United States has tried to woo for much of Trump's first 14 months in office, comes to the White House on Tuesday for a meeting with the President.

Kushner has worked for months to build a close relationship with MBS. A source close to Kushner tells CNN the relationship between the two is far more personal and close than most ties between a foreign leader and a White House aide. The son-in-law-turned-aide, the source said, hopes to use that personal relationship with the crown prince to deepen the ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The visit to the White House comes at the outset of the Saudi leader's trip across the United States as the budding prince looks to sell his more modern image of the Muslim nation.

The meeting between the President and the prince in the Oval Office on Tuesday will focus on "Iran's aggression" in the Middle East, Russia's support to leaders in Iran and Syria, and the need for a solution to a diplomatic stalemate in the Gulf, White House officials tell CNN, and Kushner is expected to play a role.

Kushner, whose policy portfolio extends to Middle East peace and the ongoing tension between Gulf nations, has staked much of the United States' strategic influence in the region on the powerful crown prince. The two are similar in age -- Kushner is 37, while MBS is 32 -- and the Trump aide sees the prince as a key ally in curbing Iran.

Though MBS is not the monarch of the Muslim nation -- that title falls to his 82-year-old father King Salman -- his visit on Tuesday will be identical to past meetings between Trump and key world leaders.

Trump and MBS will meet in the Oval Office on Tuesday and then sit down for a working lunch at the White House. The duo will not hold a news conference Tuesday, as is often traditional for foreign leader visits, and MBS is slated to be in the White House for less than two hours.

The conversation, according to senior administration officials, will focus on "Iran's aggression" in the Middle East and the support Russia offers to both Iran and Syria. One official said the two leaders would discuss ways to make "Russia pay a price" for its aggressions in the Middle East.

Trump, one official said, will push MBS for leadership in the Gulf Region on regional disagreements over Qatar and stress the need for unity in what he believes could have a deeply negative long-term impact on the Gulf region.

US concerns were raised after a host of Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, cut ties with Qatar last year, and accused leaders in the country of backing terrorist organizations. The standoff continues, with leaders in Qatar claiming the accusations are groundless.

Also of note is the Saudi role in the every-worsening civil war in Yemen, which has sparked a response from a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have called for an end to US support for the Saudi-backed coalition who are fighting Iranian-backed Houthis in the country.

Tuesday's visit is not the first time MBS has visited the White House.

He met with Trump, Kushner and other aides on March 2017, when the group had lunch in the White House's State Dining Room. That relationship grew months later when Trump made his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, where the President was greeted with opulent pomp-and-circumstance for a series of meetings with Muslim leaders, including King Salman.

During the trip, Trump signed a $110 billion arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which was primarily brokered through Kushner. The senior aide and son-in-law then took an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia in October 2017 as part of his efforts to strike a deal on Middle East peace.

MBS' trip to the United States is also a pseudo-goodwill tour, with the Saudi leader looking to sell the country's education, business and political leaders on his vision for a country that he hopes to modernize in the coming years. The prince has tried to make steps towards this vision of the last few years, including by allowing women to drive last year.

At the same time, though, MBS has sought to consolidate power by reigning in Saudi Arabia's extensive royal family and business community. In November, the crown prince impressed more than 200 members of this ruling class inside the confines of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, charging each with corruption. The hotel was also where Trump was granted a king's welcome when he visited the country.

In addition to meeting with the President, the Saudi leader has meetings with congressional leadership, education leaders in Boston and business leaders in New York. The prince will also travel to Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston, where he will meet the leadership at different technology companies, including Google and Apple.

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