By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — The crown prince of Saudi Arabia was in town Friday and Saturday on a very secretive visit amid tight security.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s private VIP 747 jumbo jet, inbound from New York, landed at Paine Field in Everett just after 2 p.m. Friday for a tour of Boeing — his first West Coast stop on a three-week U.S. trip to refashion the image of Saudi Arabia in the eyes of Americans.
After a tour of the widebody jet plant that built his airplane, the 32-year-old crown prince looked on as Boeing Chairman and Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg signed a memorandum of agreement to set up a $450 million joint venture in Saudi Arabia that will provide maintenance and repair support for the kingdom’s military aircraft.
The crown prince’s final itinerary and plans in Seattle were not announced.
In an advance draft itinerary obtained by The Seattle Times, meetings were also penciled in with Amazon and Microsoft executives, with Bill Gates and with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who lives in the state.
However, Saturday morning meetings listed on the advance agenda with Washington state’s governor and Seattle’s mayor aren’t happening — both politely declined the Saudi meeting requests, on the grounds they are busy that morning.
On Friday morning, the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle, home for the day to a large Saudi royal court delegation, though not the crown prince himself, was surrounded by black Chevy Suburbans with government license plates and Seattle police vehicles.
Inside the hotel entrance, visitors entered through an airport-style baggage-screening machine to find the lobby swarming with Saudi and American security personnel. A couple of bomb-sniffing dogs lounged on the thick carpet.
The whereabouts of the crown prince himself, and even where his 747 would land, were not disclosed in advance.
Crown prince’s aim
The crown prince, effectively the power behind the throne held by his father, is here to rebrand the image of the desert kingdom that’s best known for its vast oil wealth and adherence to a strict fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam, and to discuss a diversification of its economy away from oil.
The crown prince presents himself as a liberalizing modern, reforming and opening up the claustrophobic kingdom and in particular allowing more freedom to women.
He just lifted a 35-year-long ban on cinemas and allowed Saudi women for the first time to attend mixed-gender public entertainments such as soccer games
And in a plan dubbed Saudi Vision 2030, he has declared his intention to make Saudi Arabia “a global investment powerhouse.”
That’s the reason for meeting with so many corporate leaders while in the U.S.
Coinciding with his visit, multiple media accounts report that a 97-page glossy magazine promoting the crown prince has turned up on shelves in unlikely parts of the U.S., such as a Walmart in rural New Hampshire.
Entirely free of ads, the advertorial-style magazine is published by American Media, the Florida-based tabloid publisher headed by President Donald Trump’s friend David Pecker.
The agreement announced in Everett on Friday will form a joint venture between Boeing and state-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) that will become the sole provider of maintenance support for the Saudi air force’s fleet of military jets.
Boeing also agreed to transfer the technological know-how required to install weaponry on these aircraft as well as localize the supply chain for spare parts.
The idea is to build up local expertise within Saudi Arabia, furthering the crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan. The agreement will create 6,000 jobs in Saudi Arabia, Boeing said.
In a news release, H.E. Ahmed Al-Khateeb, chairman of SAMI, said the joint venture with Boeing will help build “a strong autonomous military-industries ecosystem in the Kingdom.”
The joint venture was part of the package of U.S. defense deals touted last May during Trump’s state visit to Saudi Arabia. Boeing CEO Muilenburg accompanied the president on that trip.
The crown prince’s planned meeting with Bill Gates is likely intended to add some philanthropic luster to his image. Last fall, Gates met with the crown prince in Riyadh, where the two announced a $10 million initiative to empower young people.
Critics of visit
Some in Seattle are critical of the welcome that business interests have laid on for the crown prince and in particular of any military support offered for Saudi Arabia as it wages a bloody proxy war in Yemen against forces aligned with Iran.
Mercer Island resident Aisha Jumaan, a Yemeni-American public-health specialist who founded the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, a charity aimed at addressing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, blames Prince Mohammed for the heavy bombing of civilians in her home country.
Three years ago, the Saudi government launched a military campaign against predominantly Shia Houthi rebels who had risen against the Yemeni government and whom the Saudis charge are backed by Iran.
In that continuing war, supported by the U.S. government, the Saudi air force has deployed its large fleet of Boeing F-15 Strike Eagles and other aircraft to hit Houthi targets and to provide air support for government troops.
The Saudi-led Arab military coalition has also blockaded Yemen as part of its offensive.
The outcome has been devastating to Yemen’s civilian population, with a war-induced famine and a cholera epidemic as well as documented reports of airstrikes hitting targets such as hospitals and schools.
To Jumaan that makes Prince Mohammed “a war criminal.”
“It is disheartening that many U.S. businesses are turning a blind eye to his atrocities as long as he pays,” she said. “His money blinds people.”
Prince Mohammed’s hard line against Iran is aligned with the views of his Sunni Arab allies, the Trump administration and Israel.
With the controversial backdrop of the Yemen conflict, local politicians did not scramble to rearrange their schedules in order to meet the crown prince.
Gov. Jay Inslee is flying to Yakima on Saturday morning to sign a bill establishing March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day to celebrate the labor and civil-rights leader.
Mayor Jenny Durkan is likewise too busy to meet the crown prince that morning. She’s giving an address and attending a town-hall meeting in Ballard.