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Who is Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed? The controversial leader receiving a warm welcome in America

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud on March 27, 2018.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud on March 27, 2018. Amir Levy/Reuters

Saudi Arabia‘s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s two-week stay in the United States generated headlines around the world.

The 32-year-old prince who met with U.S. President Donald Trump was hailed as a “revolutionary” by media outlets and praised by Hollywood celebrities.

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The prince, also known as MBS, is on an ambitious mission to modernize Saudi Arabia and improve its image in the West. Last year, the country announced it would finally allow women to drive. Earlier this week, it announced it would open up its first movie theatre.

It’s all part of a political strategy dubbed Saudi’s Vision 2030 — the country’s plan to reduce its dependence on oil and put a greater focus on women’s rights, recreation and tourism.

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First female-focused motor show opens in Saudi Arabia
First female-focused motor show opens in Saudi Arabia

But the efforts aren’t enough, many critics say. And the country’s role in Yemen’s unrest is another major source of controversy.

Here’s what to know about Prince Mohammed, his ongoing tour of the U.S. and the criticism he’s facing.

U.S. media coverage and celebrities

Steps toward modernization have garnered the prince praise in U.S. media coverage, with 60 Minutes calling him a revolutionary who is “emancipating women.”

The prince also appeared on the cover of Time magazine this week, with a headline that read: “The Saudi Crown Prince thinks he can transform the Middle East. Should we believe him?”

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It appears that some American celebrities do believe him. Several joined the prince for dinner at media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s home this week.

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According to the Hollywood Reporter, the dinner was attended by others such as Morgan Freeman and James Cameron.

Among them was actor Dwayne Johnson, who posted about meeting Prince Mohammed on Facebook and called it a “historic night.”

“A pleasure to have a private dinner with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, his royal family and distinguished cadre,” he wrote Wednesday.

“A fun night and great to hear his deep-rooted, yet modern views on the world and certainly the positive growth of his country.”

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Coca-Cola ad has Saudi Arabia dad teaching daughter how to drive
Coca-Cola ad has Saudi Arabia dad teaching daughter how to drive

Criticism of Prince Mohammed

Many Facebook users commented on the actor’s Facebook post, questioning why he was praising the controversial leader.

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“You know the best and most modern member of evil dictatorship is still a dictator right?” one Facebook user wrote.

Another commented: “I think your reputation and judgement have been severely compromised.”

Beyond Facebook, Prince Mohammed’s stay in the U.S. has led to a few protests. On Thursday, protesters gathered outside a Four Seasons Hotel in California over the prince’s involvement in Yemen’s conflict.

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“We don’t stand for this war, we don’t support this war, we don’t want him in the bay, we don’t want him in our homeland of Yemen as well,” a protester named Jehan Hakim told NBC News.

Other protesters shouted, “Blood on your hands.”

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Saudi corruption purge consolidates Crown Prince’s power
Saudi corruption purge consolidates Crown Prince’s power

Yemen conflict

Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen’s conflict has been a major source of controversy for the country. Saudi-led bombing has killed thousands in Yemen since 2015, and displaced about two million others.

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The country is caught in what many describe as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But in this month’s Time interview, Prince Mohammad, who is also defence minister, downplayed his country’s role.

“Yemen, it’s a battle between Yemeni people, Yemeni government trying to get rid of the terrorists who hijacked their country and their normal life. And it’s their battle,” he said.

The prince insisted that Saudi Arabia is doing its best to get humanitarian aid to the country.

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At least 12 dead in Yemen after Saudi-led air strike
At least 12 dead in Yemen after Saudi-led air strike

Women’s rights

Prince Mohammed’s visit also prompted anger among women’s rights groups, who said that the leader has made some progress but still holds many ultra-conservative views.

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In his recent interview with 60 Minutes, the prince offered more insight on his view of women’s rights.

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While the prince said women are “absolutely” equal to men, he also said they must wear “decent and respectful attire.”

The country still has many limits on women, including how they travel, dress and access services such as health care.

— With files from The Associated Press