March 20, 2018 / 4:25 PM / a month ago

Iran, Yemen in focus as Trump and Saudi prince meet at White House

WASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will discuss tensions with Iran and a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen which has come under criticism in Congress when they meet on Tuesday.

Their talks at the White House are part of the first visit by the prince to the United States since he became the heir apparent last June to succeed King Salman. Prince Mohammed has consolidated power and is likely to rule for many decades if he succeeds his father.

Though the prince, 32, has won Western plaudits for seeking to ease Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil, tackle chronic corruption and reform the conservative Sunni Muslim kingdom, the severity and secrecy of an anti-corruption crackdown last November has unnerved some investors.

The prince is on a public relations blitz while traveling in the United States, with stops in New York, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston.

Trump and the crown prince were expected to underscore the strength of U.S.-Saudi ties which suffered under the Obama administration. Saudi Arabia, a decades-long U.S. ally, felt neglected by President Barack Obama’s pursuit of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Riyadh’s regional rival.

Both Trump and the crown prince want to constrain Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia on Monday called the Iran nuclear deal a “flawed agreement,” and Trump has made clear he plans to exit the agreement unless changes are made to it.

As well as a working lunch with Trump, the prince is due to have dinner with Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, along with Jason Greenblatt, the two point men in the Trump administration overseeing Middle East peace efforts.

Prince Mohammed and Kushner have forged a close relationship, which has at times come under criticism in Washington for circumventing normal diplomatic channels.

YEMEN WAR

The crown prince is also due to meet with members of the U.S. Congress, some of whom have been critical of the Saudi campaign in Yemen, particularly the humanitarian situation and civilian casualties.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised Saudi Arabia and on Tuesday blasted a resolution against U.S. involvement in the conflict in Yemen, which is due for a vote later in the day.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a sponsor of the resolution, said the United States, a major provider of weapons to Saudi Arabia and intelligence and logistical support to the Saudis in Yemen, should not be involved in the three-year-old war that has unleashed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

A Saudi-led coalition is fighting to counter the influence of Iran, an ally of the Houthis, who deny any help from Tehran and say they are fighting a revolution against corrupt politicians and Gulf powers in thrall to the West.

A Gulf dispute pitting some Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar will also likely be brought up at the Trump meeting.

Senior U.S. officials say Trump wants to settle the dispute, although Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has called the issue a “very small matter”.

Washington is the first stop of the crown prince’s visit to the United States, where he will meet with U.S. business and industry leaders to cultivate investments. The Trump administration is keen to sign multi-billion dollar deals for U.S. firms. (Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Alistair Bell)

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