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US senator who called MBS 'toxic' heaps praise on leader after Saudi mega order of Boeing aircraft

Saudi Arabia prepares to welcome Hamas delegation just days after Senator Lindsey Graham talks up potential to expand Abraham Accords
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with US Senator Lindsey Graham in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 11 April 2023 (SPA)

US Senator Lindsey Graham said he was in Saudi Arabia last week to say “thanks” to the kingdom for its purchase of $36bn worth of Boeing jets which will be produced in his home state of South Carolina.

The US senator was one of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s most vocal critics after the 2018 murder of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist, Jamal Khashoggi. At the time, Graham called the crown prince “a wrecking ball” and an unreliable US partner.

Graham’s trip to Saudi Arabia after vowing not to visit the kingdom as long as Mohammed Bin Salman was “in charge”, marks a sharp reversal in his position. It underlines how the crown prince has effectively deployed the kingdom’s economic and geopolitical heft to reemerge on the world stage.

US President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July after vowing to make Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” over the Khashoggi killing, which the CIA claimed was ordered by the crown prince.

Referring to the Khashoggi killing, Graham said in 2018 that nothing in Saudi Arabia happens without Mohammed bin Salman's knowledge. “The MBS figure is to me, toxic. He can never be a world leader on the world stage.”

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Middle East Eye previously reported how Biden's visit effectively ushered in the end of the crown prince's brief isolation, with lobbyists that once dropped the Saudis re-signing them as clients. The crown prince made a follow-up visit to Europe shortly after. 

Like its Gulf neighbours, Riyadh has been bolstered by a revival of traditional concerns about energy security, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Saudi Arabia’s economy grew 8.7 percent in 2022, the highest rate among G-20 countries. Today, Saudi Aramco is one of the world’s most valuable companies. Meanwhile, western bankers and executives have flocked to the kingdom for financing.

“I just had a very productive, candid meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince and his senior leadership team,” Graham said in a tweet on Tuesday. “The opportunity to enhance the US-Saudi relationship is real and the reforms going on in Saudi Arabia are equally real.”

In an interview with ABC on Sunday, Graham doubled down on his visit, saying he had been in touch with the Biden administration to “build on the reforms” Saudi Arabia was carrying out and the Abraham Accords.

“If you get nothing else out of this interview, things in Saudi Arabia are changing very quickly for the better,” Graham said.

“Vision 2030 of the crown prince is real. His vision for the country economically is transformative,” he added.

While Mohammed bin Salman has overseen a severe crackdown on dissent at home, he is pushing through some social and economic reforms designed to open up the conservative kingdom and diversify its economy away from fossil fuels.

In March, Saudi Arabia unveiled its new airline, Riyadh Air. The startup and the country’s established carrier, Saudia, agreed to purchase 78 Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets, with an option to purchase 34 more, in a deal the White House valued at $37bn.

"Saudi Arabia purchased $36bn worth of 787 Boeing jets made in Charleston, South Carolina," Graham explained. "They picked the Boeing 787 over the Airbus. I came over here to say thanks to Saudi Arabia. They’re thinking about buying more jets.”

But Saudi Arabia’s bulging state coffers have added to its confidence on the world stage, with Riyadh pursuing an independent foreign policy streak that has irritated Washington.

In March, Saudi Arabia agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran, in a deal brokered by Washington’s arch-rival, China.

Earlier this month, at an undisclosed time, CIA director Bill Burns was in the kingdom where he told Mohammed Bin Salman that the US was blindsided by the reconciliation with Iran and, more recently, Syria, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Graham is a noted Iran hawk and has regularly opposed efforts to normalise ties with Syria. He told ABC that he cautioned the Saudis about getting too close to China and Iran.

“I see a chance to normalise the relationship between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel that would be transformative for the region,” he said.

Graham’s comments on expanding the Abraham Accords are also notable. Riyadh has expressed a willingness to engage with Israel but is asking the US for security guarantees and help on its nuclear programme in return.

But Saudi Arabia’s recent moves to restore ties with Hamas are likely to those dampen hopes.

Just days after Graham’s visit, Palestinian media reported that a delegation from the group which governs the besieged Gaza Strip, and which the US and Israel label a terrorist organisation, would travel to Saudi Arabia for the first such visit in years. Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh is set to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Monday.

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