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Trump Meets Saudi Prince In Effort To Improve Relations


Saudi Arabia is sounding pleased with the new administration, especially the harsher tone the U.S. has taken when it comes to Iran. The Saudi deputy crown prince is in Washington, and President Trump rolled out the red carpet for him yesterday, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who's in his 30s, is the number three in the hierarchy of Saudi Arabia. But he got a head-of-state-plus reception here in Washington in the words of Ali Shihabi, who set up the Arabia Foundation to promote Saudi views here.

ALI SHIHABI: Not only did he get the White House - an Oval Office meeting, but he had the lunch hosted by the president, and that's exceptional. And I think the feeling was that there was a warmth and understanding on behalf of the Trump administration that hasn't been there in the eight years of the Obama administration.

KELEMEN: One big difference he says is the tough talk about Iran and an understanding that the Saudi military campaign in Yemen is meant to keep Iran in check. Last year, the Obama administration put a hold on the sale of precision-guided weapons to the Saudis out of concern for the high civilian death toll in Yemen. Shihabi says that's changing

SHIHABI: By releasing the weapons that the Obama administration had held up, America has reverted to the role that it had in - when the Obama administration, early on, played a much more supportive role.

KELEMEN: Before such military sales could resume, the Trump administration would have to notify Congress, and that hasn't happened yet.

And Human Rights Watch is predicting some pushback from lawmakers if it does. The group's Yemen researcher Kristine Beckerle says the U.S. is complicit in what she calls unlawful attacks on civilians in Yemen.

KRISTINE BECKERLE: On our end, as Human Rights Watch, we would hope that they wouldn't push these sales forward because of the moral angle and because they would care about, you know, Yemeni civilian lives. But at the same time, it is an important point that you can't claim ignorance at this point about what the Saudi-led coalition is doing in Yemen and whose weapons they're using to do so.

KELEMEN: Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of attacks on civilian targets in Yemen, a country that the U.N. now says is the world's worst humanitarian disaster. And Beckerle says she's found fragments of U.S. weapons at those sites.

At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner says the U.S. is pressing Saudi Arabia to exercise restraint.


MARK TONER: We're working to help Saudi Arabia improve how it goes about targeting. When it does decide to target that it's targeting the right places and not indiscriminately hitting civilian targets.

KELEMEN: Saudi Arabia launched the campaign two years ago to try to restore a government that was ousted by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Saudi analysts Ali Shihabi says the Trump administration understands the desire of the Saudi monarchy to win this.

SHIHABI: It's not a quagmire. It is very unfortunate. Obviously, the Saudi government would like to stop it immediately. But it is sustainable until the world community can come and ensure that Iran's relationship with Yemen is under control. And I think that's what has been felt with the Trump administration.

KELEMEN: He says the generals advising Trump understand the regional dynamics. And Saudi Arabia seems to be building up closer ties to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who's playing a lead role in U.S. policy in the Middle East. Shihabi jokes that the Saudis understand the importance of the son in law. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIRED PONY SONG, "I DON'T WANT YOU AS A GHOST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.