Oprah, Rupert Murdoch, Harvard: Saudi Prince’s U.S. Tour

Oprah, Rupert Murdoch, Harvard: Saudi Prince’s U.S. Tour

LOS ANGELES — He talked about the movie business with Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Dwayne Johnson over dinner at Rupert Murdoch’s house. He discussed space travel with Richard Branson in the California desert, and philanthropy with Bill Gates and technology with Jeff Bezos in Seattle. He visited Harvard and MIT, brokered arms deals with President Trump and sat down with Wall Street financiers. He even met with Oprah Winfrey. For nearly three weeks, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne, has crisscrossed the United States, on an ambitious, choreographed journey through modern American life, while under heavy guard because of his many enemies in the Middle East. The prince, who arrived in America with a reputation as an aggressive consolidator of power back home and a zealous interventionist abroad, is seeking to change the perception of Saudi Arabia from an opaque and conservative kingdom, where mosques promote extremist ideology and women are relegated to second-class status, to a modernist desert oasis. Prince Mohammed also has sought to attract American investors for industries going well beyond Saudi Arabia’s Aramco petroleum giant. He is pressing what he has described as a transformative economic agenda, to wean the kingdom from reliance on oil and diversify its economy through public infrastructure investments and development of an entertainment industry — including theme parks along the lines of Six Flags and Disney. “I think it’s brilliant and I will tell you why,” said Adam Aron, the chief executive of the movie theater chain AMC, who has met with the prince. “The crown prince is aware that Saudi Arabia has had a difficult image in the United States, because it’s been such a conservative country for so many decades. He wants to transform Saudi society in ways that will be very appealing to Americans.” Continue reading the main story Advertisement Continue reading the main story Mr. Aron spoke this week in a reception area of the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, as attendees of a Saudi conference on the entertainment business ate from a spread of Middle Eastern dishes — lamb kebabs, hummus, tabbouleh. They were entertained by an oud player. Officials spoke about plans to open up the country to concerts, jazz festivals and movies, all an attempt, in the words of one Saudi official, to “drive happiness” in the kingdom, where 70 percent of the population is under 30, and many are glued to their smartphones. Photo Prince Mohammed ordering coffee with Michael R. Bloomberg, a former New York mayor, at a coffee shop in New York. Credit Bandar Al-Jaloud/Saudi Royal Palace, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Mr. Aron has been a beneficiary of the crown prince’s economic plan, called Vision 2030. On Wednesday, Mr. Aron and the Saudis announced a deal to open the first movie theater in Saudi Arabia in decades. “Black Panther,” the Marvel blockbuster, will be the first film shown at the April 18 gala opening in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Mr. Aron said men and women would be able to attend films together, a revolutionary step in Saudi Arabia, where public space has long been strictly segregated by gender. He said Hollywood films would be censored in the same way they were in other places across the Middle East: sex out, violence in. The trip, in its scale and the range of American luminaries on the itinerary, is an undertaking of extravagant ambition, say analysts. One historical parallel occurred in 1943, when the king of Saudi Arabia sent Prince Faisal, his son, to the United States to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II and tour the United States, according to Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. official who is now a Saudi expert at the Brookings Institution. “Even then, the scope wasn’t what you see today,” said Mohammed K. Alyahya, a Saudi expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “This is really across the board. It signals that there is deep cooperation beyond just security for oil.” “For the longest time the Saudis wouldn’t explain themselves, and explain why things were happening in their country,” Mr. Alyahya added. “That is changing dramatically.”