Isaac Brekken / The New York Times
Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017 | 3:53 p.m.
SAN FRANCISCO — On Prince Khalid bin Salman’s first official American trip as the Saudi ambassador to the United States, he visited Saudi military officers at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, met with Saudi engineers in Silicon Valley and connected with Lockheed Martin executives in Texas.
The journey, in a luxury jet staffed by women who offered chocolates, coffee or hot towels every few minutes, was the Saudi-prince version of learning on the job.
Prince Khalid is the 28-year-old son of the Saudi king and younger brother of the presumed future monarch, and a former fighter pilot with little diplomatic experience. Not much of the nine years he spent as an officer in the Royal Saudi Air Force translates to representing his country’s interests in Washington.
Over a steak dinner in his suite at San Francisco’s St. Regis Hotel, where the tailored suit of his trip had been exchanged for a loose white Oxford cloth shirt and navy pants, the young ambassador considered how his career path had abruptly changed.
“I used to wake up and check the weather,” he said proudly. “Now I wake up and check the news.”
Prince Khalid’s American tour ended late last week. Back in Washington, he will rely on his built-in royal connections to enhance the considerable influence the Saudis enjoy in the capital, now more than ever. As other American allies are smarting from Trump White House slights, the kingdom has regained its status as a trusted partner after eight difficult years with the Obama administration.
“I think the relationship is stronger,” Prince Khalid said. “The current administration understands the common threats and the common interests.”
Where President Barack Obama was skeptical, the Saudis have found a receptive ally in President Donald Trump. Obama, who at one time referred to the Saudis as a “so-called” ally, grappled with the kingdom over its human rights record and its deep unwillingness to engage with Shiite-led Iran, the Sunni-majority kingdom’s regional and existential rival.
In interviews with The Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg last spring, Obama called the Saudis “free riders” who were eager to drag the United States into military conflict and would “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
That baggage is lost on Trump, who chose Riyadh as the location for his first visit abroad in May. There, he was dazzled by pageantry — and an orb — and eventually announced plans for $110 billion in arms sales. In a departure from his inflammatory campaigning style, he praised Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths.”
Since his visit, Trump has openly sided with Saudi Arabia in its rift with Qatar, a neighbor the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and several other Gulf states have accused of aiding terrorism. The president has also repeatedly condemned the nuclear deal that the Obama administration forged with Iran, despite evidence that Tehran is in compliance with the agreement.
Prince Khalid, the trusted younger brother of the 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was alongside Trump during his visit to Riyadh and was on hand when Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, recently visited the Middle East. The Saudis, Prince Khalid said, are encouraged: “I think the United States is on the right track,” he said of United States-Iranian relations.
Aside from an intense focus on promoting his kingdom’s interests, Prince Khalid’s youth makes him a prime example of the type of modern Saudi official the kingdom wants to show the American public. He knows his way around Instagram, enjoys political cartoons and expresses interest in American pop culture. (He briefly entertained the idea of attending the Mayweather-McGregor fight in Las Vegas last month.)
But the young ambassador is also an example of how Riyadh’s dicey succession politics have extended 6,700 miles to Washington. The former presumed heir to the Saudi throne, Mohammed bin Nayef, or MBN, had cultivated deep ties within the Washington intelligence agencies. But on his swift rise, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, knocked MBN out of the way in June to become crown prince.
Prince Khalid’s arrival in Washington, observers familiar with the embassy say, will help consolidate the information that flows between the White House, the embassy and Riyadh, and smooth relations.
Not everyone is convinced.
Rami Khouri, a columnist and the former director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, delivered a lecture during a two-week Harvard course on national and international security last fall. Prince Khalid was one of the students.
Khouri said the Saudi relationship to the United States was more fragile than it looked — he likened it to a “sumo wrestler walking a tightrope.”
“It’s a sign of the times when the Saudi king suddenly has his children in positions for which they have virtually zero qualifications,” Khouri said, “and Trump is doing the same things. So we’ve got to kind of tighten our seat belts.”
And Prince Khalid faces undeniable obstacles in Washington.
The young Saudi leadership that he represents has, along with the help of the United States and other allies, propagated an unpopular war that has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen and created a cholera epidemic. The situation has alarmed a bipartisan group of senators, who in June tried to slow down the sale of $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. The lawmakers were defeated, but by a slimmer margin than expected.
“At the end of the day, our security is also very important to the United States,” Prince Khalid said, adding that if the sales were stalled, the kingdom would procure weapons “from somewhere else.”
The ambassador is particularly concerned with bipartisan outreach during a volatile time in Washington. Robert Malley, a senior adviser to the Obama administration on the Middle East and now a vice president at the International Crisis Group, who recently met with the ambassador, said the Saudis would need to be careful.
“They need to walk a fine line: Embracing Trump without alienating his foes,” Malley said in an interview. “Otherwise, they risk losing not just Democrats, but many who are not particularly sympathetic to this administration.”
The regional blockade against Qatar poses another challenge. Prince Khalid made a beeline to Capitol Hill after presenting his credentials to Trump in July, and met with more than a dozen lawmakers.
On his list was Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in June that he would hold up arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations as a result of the regional dispute.
“The ambassador and I had a productive meeting,” Corker said in an email relayed through a spokesman. “He and his brother, the Crown Prince, will play an important role in modernizing the partnership between our countries, and I am hopeful they will make positive contributions that foster shared interests for regional security and stability.”
Aside from jaunts to Capitol Hill and quiet visits to a few Georgetown restaurants, Prince Khalid has kept a low profile in Washington, preferring to host visitors at his palatial compound overlooking the Potomac River in McLean, Virginia, where he lives with his wife and two young children.
He had two far flashier predecessors: Adel al-Jubeir, the well-connected former ambassador who is now the Saudi foreign minister, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, another former fighter pilot who was close to the Bush family.
Andrew Exum, a friend of Prince Khalid’s and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, said the ambassador’s military background — including time spent in training programs at U.S. Air Force bases in Mississippi, Texas and Nevada — produced a different type of Saudi official.
“He was really living in America,” Exum said, “not on the coasts.”
Part of the job, Exum said, is combating the kingdom’s broader image problem among Americans.
This image is not helped by the fact that the majority of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi. The Saudi government recently petitioned for a repeal of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a 2016 law that would allow family members of 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom over the attacks. (As a candidate, Trump was supportive of the legislation, which survived a veto by Obama and intense lobbying from the Saudis.)
Prince Khalid framed the bill, known as JASTA, as a threat to the American-Saudi relationship, and therefore a threat to national security.
“I think at the end of the day wisdom will prevail,” he said. “I think people in the United States understand that this relationship is very important to America and very important to counterterrorism.”
The young Saudi leadership has publicly made much of Vision 2030, a plan to diversify the economy and slowly modernize. But major headwinds include social issues, particularly the Saudi driving ban for women. Prince Khalid said he is “optimistic” that the crown prince will be the monarch to grant women the right to drive.
“Our leadership is trying to balance that and make sure we move forward and make sure every citizen in Saudi Arabia moves forward with us,” Prince Khalid said. “Some people are going to be in the driving seat, in the front seat, some people will be in the back seat.”
The prince’s allies say his youth is a strength. Capt. Mohammad al-Ajmi, an officer in the Saudi air force who said he flew dozens of missions in Yemen and Syria with Prince Khalid, said in an interview that his friend was unassuming and energetic.
He has seen the prince quit only once.
“He doesn’t know how to ski,” Ajmi, 29, said. “That’s the only thing he gave up on.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.