Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is currently deep into a coast-to-coast U.S. charm offensive. Leading figures from the worlds of politics, business, entertainment and media are being lined up and are lining up to meet the most influential figure from the world’s leading oil exporter. But who exactly has made the cut?
We know the Saudi heir met with U.S. President Donald Trump and key members of the Trump administration soon after his arrival just over one week ago. In a refreshing move he also reached out to New York’s leading rabbis. But details of his itinerary have been kept largely under wraps. That is until yesterday. According to a 36-page leaked document reportedly seen by UK national newspaper The Independent, alongside political honchos such as Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, John Kerry, Gen David Petraeus and Condoleezza Rice, the Crown Prince is also meeting entertainment and business leaders such as Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Tim Cook of Apple and Disney’s Bob Iger.
We have heard from multiple sources that Fox Co-Chair Murdoch was keen to sit down with the Crown Prince. Fox declined to comment but haven’t denied a tete-a-tete. Murdoch could be looking for friends in Saudi Arabia after widespread reports that late last year his key ally in the country Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal had to sell $1.5B worth of shares in 21st Century Fox after he became caught up in Bin Salman’s recent reforms in the country.
Given that Prince Alwaleed has also been an important business ally of Disney having significantly invested in its European theme park business, the Mouse would also want to be on good terms with the new regime. Meanwhile, according to Reuters, Apple and Amazon are both in discussions with Riyadh about growing their footprint in Saudi Arabia, so getting to know Bin Salman also makes sense for the tech giants.
The business and PR outreach doesn’t end there on the whirlwind trip. Other notable media meetings for the Prince reportedly include dinner with The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, meetings with the editorial boards of The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as interviews with Time and Vanity Fair.
Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel is said to be throwing a dinner for the Crown Prince in early April with producer Brian Grazer. The Prince has been in talks to buy a $400M stake in Endeavor so that aligns. Somewhat more left-field, but in keeping with the broad swath of power players on the list, the Crown Prince is also reportedly due to meet Oprah Winfrey. Could there even be a TV appearance with Oprah in the offing after his 60 Minutes close up last week? The entrepreneur and queen of daytime TV has previously tweeted her appreciation for “all my women friends in Saudi Arabia” and she could be keen to discuss the Prince’s more liberal stance on women’s rights in the country which includes allowing them to drive for the first time.
What’s clear is that the Prince has reached out to a broad range of power players from across the political divide. And he has seemingly been welcomed with open arms. Saudi Arabia has long been a key political ally of the U.S. in the Middle East and entertainment and media world titans such as Murdoch and Disney are known to have been in the Saudi investment club. But at a time when the Chinese government is cooling its Hollywood courtship, a more open and tolerant Saudi Arabia is now being welcomed by a broader range of businesss and entertainment kingpins. A huge investment in the country’s entertainment sector, including the reopening of the country’s movie theaters is proving a tantalizing proposition for the exhibition community in particular.
The 32-year-old Prince remains a controversial figure, however. The Saudi government ordered the arrest and hotel detention of more than 300 business leaders in November last year. The move was touted as as a way to recover billions in lost revenue but reports of detainee abuse unsettled financial markets. Meanwhile, despite millions spent on multiple PR campaigns, the Prince, who also serves as the kingdom’s minister of defense, has faced criticism from human rights organizations for the country’s ongoing war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia does not recognize religious freedom and LGBT rights are also virtually non-existent. Women make up only 5% of the workforce.
The Prince has been commended for some eye-catching reforms in the conservative country, but large cultural differences still remain as he himself admitted when he sat down with CBS’s Norah O’Donnell on 60 Minutes, the first U.S. televised interview with a Saudi leader in more than a decade.
“Saudi Arabia believes in many of the principles of human rights. In fact, we believe in the notion of human rights, but ultimately Saudi standards are not the same as American standards,” he said during the interview. “I don’t want to say that we don’t have shortcomings. We certainly do. But naturally, we are working to mend these shortcomings.”
We reached out to Disney, WME, Oprah and PR firm Qorvis, which does work for the Saudi royal family. None were available for comment.