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March 30, 2018

Saudi crown prince meets Jewish leaders during US visit

Top Story

March 30, 2018

NEW YORK: Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, known as MBS, has met leaders from a number of right-wing Jewish organisations during his tour of the United States, Al Jazeera reported.

The groups, which have donated millions to illegal settlement building and the fight against BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, include officials from AIPAC, Stand Up for Israel (ADL) and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).

According to a leaked copy of his itinerary, Haaretz reported that MBS also met with leaders from the Conference of Presidents, B'nai B'rith and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). AIPAC, ADL and the JFNA have long targeted BDS, a non-violent movement that seeks to economically pressure Israel into providing equal rights and a right of return to Palestinians.

Some of the pro-Israel US groups have spent millions in lobbying for the Combating BDS Act, a bill that seeks to stifle BDS. Meanwhile, JFNA gave almost $6m to illegal Israeli settlements between 2012 and 2015. JFNA supports a number of settlements over the Green Line (the border separating pre-1967 Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories), and helps families of Jews suspected or convicted of violence against Palestinians.

While Saudi Arabia does not officially recognise Israel, analysts have repeatedly said the overtures by MBS signal a warming of ties between the two countries. Mahjoob Zweiri, the director of the Gulf Studies Programme at Qatar University, was quoted as saying that the MBS visit was "a PR campaign aimed to represent a new face of the kingdom to the US, one that was flexible and willing to change".

"There was an old understanding from Arab leaders that the gates for Washington, DC are guarded by pro-Israeli leaders. This includes business leaders, groups such as AIPAC and others linked to Israel," Zweiri said.

"MBS is following that trend, he's trying to court the US and show them that he supports their plan for Israel-Palestine and their decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. "Another dimension is that when Republicans are in power, it's widely believed they have closer ties to Israel and the Israeli agenda.

"US President Donald Trump's 'deal of the century,' which recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, could also see a normalising of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and force the Palestinians to agree to Israeli demands."

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on March 28, 2018, shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) ordering coffee with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (2nd-R) at a coffee shop in New York, the United States.

As part of his two-week tour, MBS has already met Bill and Hillary Clinton, Senator Chuck Schumer, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The crown prince was seen in a casual setting with Michael Bloomberg at a local coffee shop in New York. The men were joined by Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Khalid bin Salman in the short break away from their hectic schedules. The crown prince also met with 40 executive officials of several major US companies and reviewed the importance of working on joint projects with Saudi Arabia.

He is expected to meet Oprah Winfrey, a media mogul and major opinion-maker in the US in the coming days. Other notable media meetings include dinner with Rupert Murdoch, CIA director and soon to be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

For years, Saudi Arabia has been known as a strictly Sunni Muslim country where churches, temples and synagogues are banned and citizens are expected to adhere to strict rules about modesty. But recently, there has been a big shift in the country's culture and economy thanks to the ambitious prince who has upended decades of royal family protocol, social norms and traditional ways of doing business.

He has been laying the groundwork for momentous social and economic changes that will take place this year, defying its conservative reputation for slow, cautious reforms. Prince Mohammed and his father King Salman bet on a young generation of Saudis hungry for change and a Saudi public fed up with corruption and government bureaucracy. There is also a need to cut a budget deficit of at 195 billion riyals caused by collapsing oil prices. A ban on women driving has been lifted and there are plans to begin issuing licenses to women, even allowing them to drive motorcycles. This year women will also be allowed to attend sporting matches in national stadiums, where they were previously banned.

Movie theatres, shut down in the 1980s during a wave of ultraconservatism, are returning to the Kingdom. Previously, Saudis could stream movies online, watch them on satellite TV or travel to neighbouring countries like Bahrain and the UAE.