WASHINGTON — On the eve of the 18th anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince hosted a delegation of evangelical Christian leaders from the United States at his Jeddah palace.
This was the second time in less than a year that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hosts such a delegation in the Kingdom, as part of the country's efforts to improve its public image in the U.S., especially among the evangelical community.
>> Read more: Can Trump change course on Iran and still keep evangelicals onboard? ■ In Saudi Arabia, women's rights are used to sweep murder under the rug | Analysis
The nine-member delegation was led by Joel Rosenberg, an evangelical author and activist who lives in Jerusalem and has dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, and included Rev. Johnnie Moore, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council.
In a joint statement written by the delegation, they thanked the Saudi royals for their hospitality, and noted that the seemingly incongruous timing of their visit is no accident.
"While it may surprise some that we would choose the week of September 11 to visit the Kingdom, we actually feel there is no more appropriate time to focus on where the Kingdom must go, can go, and where we believe it is going,” the delegation wrote.
Of the 19 terrorists who committed the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, 15 were Saudi citizens. Last year, a U.S. judge rejected Saudi Arabia's bid to dismiss lawsuits implicating it in planning the attacks and forcing it to pay damages to victims.
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“Our visit here on this profoundly important week is in defiance of those that aim to derail reform in the Kingdom through an embrace of hate and fear rather than courage and moderation,” the statement continued, a reference to the crown prince. Prince Mohammed has enacted reforms in the Kingdom that have, among other things, granted women the ability to drive and travel without consent from a male guardian.
But he has also faced harsh criticism for arresting human rights activists, jailing his political opponents and silencing critics of the regime. The international backlash against him reached its peak after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was tortured to death by Saudi agents at the country’s consulate in Istanbul in October of 2018.
Rosenberg expressed regret that only two U.S. senators had visited the Kingdom since the beginning of 2019. “Saudi Arabia is one of America’s most important strategic allies in the war against radical Islamist terrorism and in countering the rising Iranian threat,” he explained.
“Yes, there are significant challenges in the U.S.-Saudi relationship," he wrote. "But we urge more Senators to come here, see the sweeping and positive reforms that the Crown Prince is making, and ask him candid questions directly rather than sniping at him from Washington.”
Rosenberg also led the previous evangelical delegation to Saudi Arabia, the first visit of its kind in the history of the country. That visit took place in November of last year, at the height of the international outrage over Khashoggi's murder.
The Saudi crown prince personally hosted both this delegation and the previous one, a clear sign of the Saudi leadership's prioritization of building inroads with U.S. evangelicals. The evangelical community has reached the height of its political influence since President Donald Trump entered the White House; close to 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, and they remain a key component of his political coalition ahead of next year’s presidential election.
The Saudi prince is not the first Arab leader to host an evangelical delegation led by Rosenberg; he has headed similar trips to Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Other Muslim and Arab countries, such as Bahrain, Qatar and Azerbaijan, are also investing in their relationships with evangelicals in light of the community’s growing political influence under Trump.