Saudi Arabia: The White House Loves It. Most Americans? Not So Much : Parallels As the Saudi crown prince travels across the United States, he will have one major hurdle: polls show more than half of Americans have unfavorable views of his country.
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Saudi Arabia: The White House Loves It. Most Americans? Not So Much

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Saudi Arabia: The White House Loves It. Most Americans? Not So Much

Saudi Arabia: The White House Loves It. Most Americans? Not So Much

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For a long time, there have been two things you could count on in relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The country has been favored by American presidents, but it's unpopular with the American people. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in the United States on his first trip here since his father, the king, elevated him to next in line. He meets with President Trump tomorrow, and he will be trying to change his country's image, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When the Saudi crown prince launches his American roadshow this week, there's one major hurdle. Americans don't like his country very much. Despite a 75-year alliance, polls show a large majority of Americans have an unfavorable view of the kingdom. Ask former American diplomat Frank Wisner. He says it's a cultural thing.

FRANK WISNER: The American mind simply rebels at the way Saudi women are treated, the way Saudis execute their criminals, the rigorous nature of the practice of its faith.

AMOS: Bernard Haykel, a Middle East expert at Princeton University, says, no, it's political.

BERNARD HAYKEL: I see from the coverage that Saudi Arabia is the country that many liberal Americans love to hate. Many liberal Westerners love to hate.

AMOS: The low points came when the Saudis imposed the 1970s oil embargo over U.S. support for Israel. And then there's the 9/11 attacks.

GREG GAUSE: I think there's still lots of people who kind of look at the Saudis and think 9/11 - either they were behind it, which there's no evidence for, or they created this phenomenon.

AMOS: That's Greg Gause, a Saudi specialist at Texas A&M University. He says the crown prince is here to convince American skeptics that he's launching a new more tolerant kingdom. He also wants to remind Americans that the Saudis have been reliable partners for a long time in a chaotic Middle East - a message every White House has acknowledged since the alliance began, says Gause.

GAUSE: The White House is always friends with Saudi Arabia. It's largely because the things that the Saudis do that are good for American foreign policy are kind of seen in the White House and very few other places.

AMOS: And it's been that way for decades. This is a royal visit 60 years ago.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A booming 21-gun salute welcomes his majesty King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to the United States.

AMOS: An unusually warm public welcome, says Ali Shihabi with the Arabia foundation, a pro-Saudi think tank in Washington. President Eisenhower even came to the airport to greet the Saudi monarch.

ALI SHIHABI: So it was a big honor really. And then he proceeded to take him in an open car for a ticker-tape parade.

AMOS: The Cold War deepened an alliance built on oil to a political partnership, he says.

SHIHABI: Saudi Arabia would become a key player in the Muslim world fighting the spread of communism.

AMOS: The list of common enemies has grown to include al-Qaida, ISIS and now Iran.

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AMOS: A young Saudi leader is in the U.S. again drumming up American support because Saudi Arabia's stability is at stake, says Bernard Haykel. There's a crisis ahead if Saudi Arabia can't kick its dependence on oil. For all its negatives, he says, reform is better than upheaval.

HAYKEL: This is not, you know, a country that can derail, and we can just sit idly by and watch that happen. So it's not Syria. It's not Iraq. It's much, much more important.

AMOS: Because of the size of Saudi's oil production, its role in the region, because of the long-running alliance, Haykel says, the U.S. should want the crown prince to succeed in doing what he's telling Americans he wants to do. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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