The FRONTLINE Interview: Madawi Al-Rasheed

September 30, 2019
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Madawi Al-Rasheed is the author of Salman’s Legacy.

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith for The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.

I wanna start with, in 2015, King Abdullah dies — and, as happens over and over again, a struggle over succession and what’s going to happen next. If you can take us there and describe what was happening at the highest levels of the royal court? 

Before the death of King Abdullah, there was an attempt to formalize succession simply because the royal family knew that there is an aging royalty. And there might be some conflict and rivalry between the young princes. So King Abdullah established the Committee of Allegiance in 2008. And he put in place several princes and also indicated in his royal decrees that his wish should be that those princes remain in that position. So when he died, King Salman, naturally, the crown prince became king. And, then, there was the crown prince and the deputy crown prince.

These are new posts, especially the deputy crown prince, that was invented during the time of King Abdullah because King Abdullah was the only monarch that survived and his crown princes died, two of them — Prince Nayef and Prince Sultan. So he invented this deputy–

That Prince Nayef is the father of–

Mohammed Bin Nayef. So he invented this deputy crown prince which didn’t exist in Saudi Arabia to mitigate against some kind of power vacuum should the crown prince die. When Salman came to power, he immediately changed the succession. He sacked two crown princes. The first one was Mohammed Bin Nayef and Muqrin, who were destined to succeed him. And he changed the succession from the horizontal line which the al Saud had followed for several decades that is moving the succession from brother to brother into a vertical line when he appointed his son, Mohammed Bin Salman.

However, he did not choose his eldest son. He did not consult with the royal family. He completely ignored the Committee of Allegiance and as a result of a royal decree, sacking the crown prince and the deputy crown prince and promoting his own son. 

And that happened three months after King Salman came to power. He gave his son so many positions in government until 2017 when he actually sacked Mohammed Bin Nayef and replaced him with his own son as the crown prince. But he also didn’t appoint a deputy crown prince as had been the case during King Abdullah.

So to somebody on the outside looking in and listening to you talk about that, I mean, it’s the prerogative, one would presume, of a king to do what he wants in terms of the succession. But how significant was it as a break from the past?

Of course, in an absolute monarchy, it is the prerogative of the king to appoint princes or commoners to high positions and also sack them. However, in the Saudi royal family, there had been the semblance of consensus and simply because a king was an equal person among his brothers.

Although, he is the king, he’s the eldest usually but not necessarily, he has to consult with powerful brothers like, for example, previous kings. King Salman had the advantage of the fact that all his brothers, almost all of them, the ones that count had died.

And therefore, there were no brothers to fear. And therefore, he was able to appoint his own son and move the succession to his own line of descent thus ignoring the other branches of the Saudi royal family. So he was able to do that with no opposition.

So all the remaining princes especially among the powerful ones such as Mohammed Bin Nayef — who was extremely important in the fight against terrorism, who was responsible for the internal security in the country — he was dismissed. And he was put under house arrest according to some reports. And since his sacking in 2017, he hasn’t been seen occupying an important position or contributing in a debate or any kind of public event. 

So give us a sense of who King Salman is as a man. What do we know about him, his character, his behavior? Fill in the blanks for us. 

King Salman was one of the most powerful princes in Saudi Arabia among the descendant of the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullahziz. He was the governor of Riyadh for almost half a century. This is an important post simply because Saudi Arabia moved to a greater urbanization where most of the population lived in cities. 

And Riyadh, the capital, is the city in Saudi Arabia with the highest number of people living there. Plus, it’s the seat of government. So he was extremely important as governor of Riyadh, the capital. And also he was known to be very, very strict in terms of disciplining princes, in terms of resolving conflict between princes. So everybody who had a problem with a rival prince or had a dispute, they will go to him. 

And he used to mediate. And sometimes he would just impose his own decision. And this also applied to commoners. He had an open (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Riyadh in the seat of government where citizens would go to him, hand petitions, help them, solve problems or complain about an official. 

And therefore, he was like a governor. But he was also a judge. He had so much power in his seat as governor of Riyadh. But King Salman also had another side. He was very, very dismissive of the religious groups. He never really had any sympathy with them.

But he had to act in ways that gave the impression that he listens to them. The religious clerics…would go to him. But he would give them the impression that he is sympathetic to their cause. But at the same time, he would distance himself from them.

Sometimes he would patronize a sort of liberal constituency among intellectuals. He is known to be very interested in literature in the history of Saudi Arabia. He wants to promote his own homeland, especially the city of the area, as the center of Saudi Arabia. 

And he’s involved in reviving heritage in order to solidify the seat of government in Saudi Arabia and also make Saudi Arabia…as one unit. Also, we know of him that he was very supportive of the jihad in Afghanistan. 

And he was donating money. He set up a fund to help in the 1980s. And so King Salman has multiple faces. But at the moment, he’s actually old. And it is very difficult to see that he is running the show. Although, the Saudi press and the media are very keen on promoting him as a new face. And this happened recently especially in the last two, three months.

So he ruled, however, without the kind of scandal and controversy that his son has as crown prince? So you describe him as strict. But he avoided the kind of overstepping of boundaries and offenses that his son has done. Is that fair?

You mean Mohammed Bin Salman? 

Mohammed Bin Salman has been– his rule has been rife with controversy whereas the father, although strict, has avoided that kind of controversy. 

Yes. Because he has more respectability. The king has more respectability and authority than his son. First of all, his age, his long service in government. Whereas his son is a newcomer to the political game in Saudi Arabia. And as such, he has been erratic possibly because of lack of experience and possibly also because he knows that he has the full support of his father. So the only person who could discipline Mohammed Bin Salman is his father.

And why he chosen? Why was Mohammed Bin Salman, who is not the oldest son — he’s the oldest son of the third wife. But he’s not the oldest son of the king. Why was he chosen as crown prince? 

There is a theory that Mohammad bin Salman was the closest. He’s one of the youngest children of King Salman. And as an aging father, probably he felt threatened by the elder sons and chose the one that he could actually patronize and doesn’t feel threatened by him, because he’s the young boy.

And this happens. And if you look at Arab culture, you find that there is always an affinity between an aging father and his last son or the youngest one. And this happens because the young son reminds the old, aging father of his virility. And also, at the same time he doesn’t fear his very, very young son. Whereas the eldest son might have political ambitions of his own. He might isolate his father and even depose him.

And this happened among royalty in the Gulf. We see that some Gulf rulers, very young and energetic, they had sidelined their father and even isolated them and deposed them. And this happened in Amman. This happened in Qatar. And it happened in other places.

And therefore, King Salman, while he wanted to assert his youth and vitality by choosing his youngest son, he was able also to avoid the competition from a young, but energetic, man — even if he’s his son — to possibly depose him and replace him as an ambitious man may not be able to accept waiting for a long time until the father dies.

So you’re a close observer of Saudi Arabia. You have been for many years. You’ve written many books. So when do you begin to notice Mohammed bin Salman? When do you become aware of him? And what were you learning? 

On several occasions when King Salman used to travel abroad, especially to his palace in southern Spain in Marbella, he used to have this young man. He was a boy at the time and always sitting by his side, always accompanying him. It’s almost he found in him some kind of warmth, love — and an ability to patronize him.

So he was with him from a very, very young age. And I had the opportunity to know other sons of King Salman. There was one, Faisal, who was a student at Oxford University doing a Ph.D. in international relation. And his Ph.D. was on Saudi–Iranian relations in the 1970s. And when King Salman became king, I expected that he might appoint his son, who is an Oxford graduate to become the foreign minister. But, of course, this didn’t happen. And he was sidelined, given the governorship of a city in Saudi Arabia although it is religiously important Medina. But it’s not politically significant. 

Also, he had other sons who had more international exposure — for example, the son who went to the moon on a mission very early on. So he sidelined all those sons and probably chose this one because he loved him the most and also because he’s young and is able to rule for at least 50 years. 

And what about his character as he grew up in the shadow of his father? What did you learn about who he was, what kind of young man he was?

I think he’s part of a new generation of Saudi princes who were born in the ’80s. So they are millennials. And they have all the characteristics of millennials. First of all, he is given too much power at such an early age. And he’s become very, very arrogant. A [34]-year-old man with all these powers and all this wealth. That he is the major arbiter of the future of Saudi Arabia, it has gone into his head. And also, he is part of the media hype. He’s very interested in controlling the media. 

And possibly, the death of Khashoggi is part of that obsession. He was very, very interested in establishing institutions where media can be controlled and participants in social media can be followed, can be traced and can be pursued to the extent that he appointed his own mates, his own friends that he had met at university to control these kind of institutions. And we have heard about several names that were associated with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And they thought that by controlling the media, by PR campaigns, they could actually win the argument.

So Saud al-Qahtani was a classmate of his when he was at King Saud University?

They were all friends. And they would be part of a group of friends. They would socialize. They would eat together. They would entertain and have fun together. And suddenly, the young prince has become the crown prince. And therefore, all his friends are part of his bureaucrats, his team who are really, really dedicated to him because he’s given them an opportunity that they may never have had without him. 

Most known of those was Saud al-Qahtani.

Saud al-Qahtani is one of them. 

Who are the others?

There’s al-Mutrib. There’s a group of young men who are always following him, always with him. And he listens to them as his advisors.

And al-Mutrib was one who traveled with him in the U.S. when he did his tours. 

Yes. Absolutely. He would accompany the prince in addition to others. There is a very small circle of loyalists. And these are the ones who may be able to carry his orders, or advise him to do certain things. But that doesn’t absolve him from any responsibility if he listens to those young, inexperienced advisors or aides.

Given that, it’s impossible to imagine an operation such as the one that resulted in the murder of Khashoggi being unknown to the crown prince.

It is absolutely incredible and impossible for a murder at that scale with a team of murderers to travel on Saudi private jets to arrive in Istanbul, to have the money to book all themselves in hotels, to time the operation, to basically bringing Jamal to Istanbul — it is extremely impossible to believe that Mohammed bin Salman has nothing to do with this or he ordered them to bring him. But they went out of their hand and killed him. It’s impossible. 

It’s hard to square that idea that he simply wanted to bring him back with the arrival of a forensic doctor with a bone saw. 

Well, absolutely. It is extremely difficult to believe that this wasn’t a planned murder. In fact, the Saudi prosecutor said that this is a planned murder. But who ordered the planned order remains an open question.

Well, before I go to that point about the relative benign treatment of Saudi Arabia– 

I think it’s important for Western audiences to understand why their governments are allied with the Saudi regime. I think it’s extremely important. And many people wonder why a so-called democratic government that cares about human rights, gender equality — all those kind of values would put all its baskets in–

MARTIN SMITH: All its eggs. 

All its eggs in the Saudi basket. And to explain that, first of all, it’s not unusual. Western government had always cooperated with dictators around the globe from South America to the Middle East. And I could name so many dictators in the Arab world that had the full support of Western government: from Zene El Eabidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, all the Gulf sheikdoms, emirs, kings, sultans — you name them, they all had the support of the West.

So why is the West that claims to uphold democratic values support these dictators? There are so many reasons. And there are reasons specific to Saudi Arabia that we can actually talk about. From the U.S. perspective, or at least the official U.S. perspective, Saudi Arabia is perfect for an ally for them to have as a partner.

Imagine the U.S. wants to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. There are no parliaments in Saudi Arabia, no representative government, no elected government that is gonna check the contract. If you want to sell them whatever equipment you want, you only need to have a personal relationship of a king or a prince.

And you sign the contract. So these contracts are not vetted by any kind of representative government in Saudi Arabia. And the U.S. prefers that when it deals with its allies and partners abroad. Also the Saudi government can do the dirty work for any Western government that they cannot do themselves. They could take prisoners. They could interrogate prisoners in Saudi Arabia like they did after 9/11. They could help them with all the dirty work that they would be embarrassed to do in their own country. 

So Saudi Arabia participated in the kidnapping of Al Qaeda suspects, bringing them back to Riyadh and torturing them? 

Any kind of illegal activity that the U.S. can’t do openly, the Saudi Arabia will be able to do. So, for example, transferring money to the jihadis in Afghanistan, transferring military equipment to those people, it didn’t have to go through the vetting process in a country like Saudi Arabia because there isn’t such a thing.

And the stated objective is that Saudi Arabia is important because Saudi Arabia’s an oil-producing country. Saudi Arabia has a purchasing power. It can buy arms from us and technology and any other kind of investment in the U.S. It can create jobs. But all these reasons that are given especially if they are financial, they actually are overblown and blown out of proportion because it is the rhetoric of Western government that they want their constituencies to hear that this is an important country. 

And if we impose sanction on them or we tell them off for their abuse of human rights, they’re gonna punish us. And also, we’re gonna lose jobs in these countries. And jobs are extremely important everywhere interest world. But­–

Saudi Arabia did punish us in 1973, severely.

Yes. But that was for a particular reason at the time. And if you are willing, in the West, to be blackmailed by Saudi Arabia, then the situation continues as it is. There is another reason for Saudi Arabia to be an important and key partner. More recently, we find that two or three reasons are given. And these are non-economic. They are geo-strategic. So, for example, from the perspective of the U.S., Saudi Arabia is extremely important to make Iran’s influence shrink in the Middle East.

To counterbalance Iran.

And it is a counterbalance to Iran. But we don’t see how this is actually materializing on the ground. Since 2011, probably, we find that Iranian influence has expanded in the Arab world. And Saudi Arabia can’t do much about it apart from flaming the imagination of sectarian rhetoric to counter the Shia influence. 

And we have more wars and more, for example, democratic forces are suppressed and replaced by sectarian civil wars. And all of this is a result of this kind of rivalry that has been gripping the Middle East for the last 30, 40 years between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Also, Saudi Arabia is believed to be a good partner in the fight against terrorism. 

And this is the most obscure, most unconvincing argument that is put by Western government– simply because Saudi Arabia is itself, has produced the ideology and even the support that had lent to forces that can hardly be described as democratic.

How did the ulama or the clerics and — there’s a spectrum of them — allow for Saudi Arabia to be taken by a leader who has turned his back on religion being the foundation of Saudi legitimacy? 

The ulama, or the religious scholars, have an inflated image in Saudi Arabia — and influence. Since the 1970s, when King Faisal established a council of higher ulama that is a council of religious scholars who are consulted on matters. The ulama lost their real power and influence simply because religion became a bureaucracy of the state under the control of the state. 

And therefore, they have actually lost their influence among people. And over the last 20, 30 years, the religious scholars have been attacked by different constituencies in Saudi Arabia. The first attack came from their own rank and file because some of the Wahhabi clerics thought that the elite religious scholars had sold their soul to power. And therefore, like what happens in any church that is allied closely with royalty and becomes an arm of controlling the population, they’ve lost their legitimacy in the eyes of their own members. Hence, we have defectors from the religious establishment. Some of them had become jihadis. Then, we have another– 

But you’re talking about people like Salman al-Ouda. 

Salman al-Ouda, he’s not a jihadi at the– 

No. He’s not. 

He realized how state control had actually made those people in the service of the state. The religious scholar in Islam is supposed to have to be accountable only to God. But those religious scholars are under the control of the state.

They are willing to issue religious opinions or decrees, or what is called the fatwa, on demand. And therefore, several decades later, they’ve lost their legitimacy and respect in the eyes of the people. So, for example, you have the mufti of Saudi Arabia issuing a fatwa saying that, “Twitter is bad. Don’t participate in it.” But, then, we have the crown prince…Salman, all of them have a Twitter account. The same thing happened when– satellite dishes were introduced in Saudi Arabia. The religious scholars issued fatwa saying that, “This is really evil. You should not have a satellite dish.” But, then, everybody else had satellite dish. And the government, now, is proud to have satellite dishes. So this kind of contradiction resulted in the religious establishment becoming weak. They are just simply bureaucrats — employees of the state.

Then was the liberal onslaught on the religious scholars who ridiculed their religious opinions on women driving to the extent that one of these religious scholars said that if women are allowed to drive, their ovaries will be damaged. And this was a notorious fatwa. There were other really bigoted fatwas that they introduced. And they had a compilation of these fatwas in particular books. But, again, the government ignored their opinion. And they changed their mind very quickly.

 So when women began to drive or given the right to drive, nobody dared to criticize the decision. And in fact, all of them started justifying it on religious grounds. But nobody really cared for that opinion because everybody in Saudi Arabia knew that women’s driving is not un-Islamic. It was political decision.

And, then, those women who had pressed and risked their lives and safety, who risked their freedom to press for greater rights for women were, in fact, imprisoned.

Yes. Unfortunately.

But the news was all about the reform, about the wonderful liberalization that was taking place in Saudi Arabia under this new, young, energetic, smart reformer, Mohammed bin Salman. 

Of course, there are contradictions in the projects of Mohammed bin Salman. So on the one hand, he gives women the right to drive. And he claims full responsibility and full credit for that right. But at the same time, he puts women activists in prison simply because Mohammed bin Salman, or the likes of Mohammed bin Salman, cannot afford to have any credit taken by women activists. 

Also, he realized that the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia is not simply about driving. It’s not simply about finding jobs in a wider sector of the economy, it’s about rights. And rights are threatening to Mohammed bin Salman. The women’s movement had become extremely organized thanks to active members, educated women who were actually doing fantastic work on the ground to raise awareness and call for changes in the legal system that controls women. 

So they were not going to stop at driving a car. Their project was bigger than driving a car. The car was a symbol of their oppression. So when they were granted the right to drive, they did not stop and also, unfortunately, they were told that they should not be talking to the foreign media or any media because Mohammed bin Salman did not want to have any other constituency in Saudi Arabia have the credit for lifting the ban on driving. So these contradictory projects reflect how erratic Mohammed bin Salman is and how he really is ruling by media hype. And he wants to show, especially his outside allies how liberal and reforming he is.

And it’s worked. 

He admitted that he’s not a Democrat. He’s not a liberal. He’s a reformer. But it’s extremely important to understand wh- he chose these specific and limited reforms because, simply, he knew that they would resonate with his partners in the West. At least these reforms, or the so-called reforms, had made him or had made Saudi Arabia less of a burden, less of an embarrassment in the West — especially among Western government. So all Western governments are worried about their own constituency. 

They’re not really worried about Saudi women, whether Saudi women can drive or not. But the feminist movement in the U.S., the feminist movement here, always complained that a government like the U.S., government, like Britain, can have such close partnership with Saudi Arabia despite all the abuse, the gender inequality. 

So he provided a service for Western government by allowing women to drive, which was a fundamental right for a lot of Saudi women. But he becomes less of an embarrassment to the American administration or the British government. However, what happened in October 2018 in the Saudi consulate had made that bubble burst because a lot of people, now, realize that these were empty reforms.

You said that the Western governments gained cover by having this reformer allow women to drive. But it wasn’t simply…the governments. Editorial writers in the United States for prominent newspapers, Washington Post and the New York Times were also praising the work of this young reformer.

Yes. I think you should ask them why they fell into this trap. I wasn’t. I already knew that he was a nasty character from the very beginning. So when I read somebody like Thomas Friedman or [David] Ignatius, I just thought, you know, well, typical. If you read the New York Times or the Washington Post in the 1950s when King Saud, who was one of the most sort of corrupt kings of Saudi Arabia, when he visited the U.S., of course, there were editorials saying that he’s a great reformist king. So I wasn’t really surprised.

 

The Saudi fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, what’s it rooted in? What this about?

The Muslim Brotherhood represent an existential threat to Saudi Arabia simply because it is a movement that is widespread in the Arab Muslim world and among Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia fears the combination of Islam and democracy.

And as some sections, substantial sections of the Muslim Brotherhood had actually endorsed democracy, participated in election in Morocco, in Kuwait, in Egypt, in Tunisia. And they have been able to prove that they can be like any political party. And although they claim to be Islamic and Islam is the sole solution. 

Saudi Arabia, as a monarchy, doesn’t really like this kind of model. And it put all its finance, its diplomatic effort in order to kill this movement in Egypt after 2011. Also, it shows that there are serious threats from Turkey which, again, claims that it combines respect for Islam with some kind of democracy.

Does the Muslim Brotherhood truly threaten the monarchy in Saudi Arabia? 

I think the Muslim Brotherhood has a lot of followers in Saudi Arabia. Although, now, it is a banned organization.

A terrorist organization.

It is banned as a terrorist organization. And its discourse about Islam and democracy appeals to people. 

 

… Is it a threat to Mohammed bin Salman? 

The Muslim Brotherhood can be a threat to Mohammed bin Salman…Because it’s a modern way of thinking about Islam and politics.

So how much has MBS changed about the Saudi government, the way the regime operates and work? 

Mohammed bin Salman has moved the Saudi regime into a real absolute monarchy that doesn’t take any notice of the opinion even of the closest members of the family. 

…We had the Obama Administration. Mohammed bin Salman reached out to the Obama Administration and tried to work with them. And then the election was a surprise to everyone. Trump emerges and they are excited about a new relationship. Just take us from the Obama years into the Trump years, and what difference it made to the Saudis.

The Saudis felt threatened by President Obama simply because President Obama did not rush to rescue Mubarak in 2011. Also President Obama did not really think that Iran is the major threat to Saudi Arabia as claimed by the Saudis. In fact, Obama went out of his way to bring back Iran to the international community through the Iran Nuclear Agreement which Saudi Arabia, obviously, did not like simply because it brought Iranian oil to world markets and also it was done without consultation with the Saudis or their participation in the negotiations. 

And did nothing to address what they would term were Iranian adventures in the region.

Yes. Obama thought that the real threat to the Saudi regime is domestic simply because if they continue to operate as they have been in the past, as an absolute monarchy that doesn’t give a voice to its own people, that’s where the major threat. And the relationship became extremely difficult during the last years of Obama in office, to the extent where ex-director of intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal had to write op-eds to defend the Saudis against Obama’s claims.

So after the Iran Nuclear Agreement, in a way, Obama wanted to make up with the Saudis. And he gave them green light to start the air strikes on Yemen, it seems, without any kind of critical position from the United States at the time.

And it seemed to me that that sort of tense relationship was abandoned completely with the election of Mr. Trump to the White House. And the Saudis breathed a sigh of relief because they thought that Trump can be bought with money and the promise of investment. And this is exactly what happened. At every opportunity, Mr. Trump reminds his constituency that there are lots of investment in the U.S. And the U.S. economy needs the Saudis. And he’s not going to let go of the Saudis. 

Do you think Mohammed bin Salman has the intelligence and the smarts to learn to rule and that, over time, he’ll see a sharper, clearer vision? Or are we just going to see a repeat of the kinds of things we’ve seen? 

Well, Mohammed bin Salman got away with murder. So he probably thinks that he can strike again.

And do you fear him?

He can attack anywhere in the world as the Khashoggi case demonstrated to all of those critics of the Saudi regime. But I’m determined not to change my lifestyle and live in fear of Mohammed bin Salman.

Why did it take the murder of one journalist after the death of thousands and the starvation of many in Yemen and other events, the kidnapping of Hariri, why did it take so long before people woke up to what Mohammed bin Salman was about?

Well, not many people who matter woke up to what Mohammed bin Salman is about. If you look at the record of Western governments, yes, we have a couple of countries who suspended transfer of arms and technology to Saudi Arabia. But the countries that matter have not actually taken any action against Mohammed bin Salman, himself. Yes. They can put 18 Saudis on a blacklist or a ban list from travel to these countries. But Mohammed bin Salman was given a reception at the G20 summit. So I don’t see that the world had woken up to Mohammed bin Salman.

You think it was there. You think that people understood. But do you think that the media, journalism, academia failed in any way to shine a brighter light on just what Mohammed bin Salman was about?

Not really. I think NGOs had been aware of the plight of Saudis inside Saudi Arabia, the excessive abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia, torture in prison. That everybody knew about thanks to the Global Human Right, non-governmental organization.

But that’s not enough, because everybody knows. Even inside Western government, they know who Mohammed bin Salman is and what he is capable of doing. But yet, they are not acting on this knowledge simply because their national interest is with Mohammed bin Salman at the moment.

…We hear a lot about Saudi Arabia’s young supporting Mohammed bin Salman. We also hear from dissidents here, abroad, that that he’s not so popular, that there’s a ground swell of opposition. How do we know what to believe? 

It’s very difficult to measure the popularity of Mohammed bin Salman. If Mohammed bin Salman put journalists in prison simply for writing a critical article of his policies or the policy of another important administer close to Mohammed bin Salman, how on earth in a dictatorship we can measure public opinion? 

Can you imagine a survey of Saudi public opinion done by an independent agency who would ask Saudis whether they think Mohammed nin Salman is the right person to rule the country? It’s almost impossible to do that. And even if it is done people are willing to say yes, he is the right person.

When we see young Saudi men and women flooding to cinemas that are newly opened, when they go and participate in events, the entertainment, we actually understand how the Saudi youth had been starved of fun. And this fun is extremely important for this generation. They want to go and see a film.

They want to go to a cinema. But this doesn’t mean that they will accept everything Mohammed bin Salman does. Of course, his so-called reforms appeal to some people. But also there are others who are critical of whatever he introduced such as women’s driving. But they remain silent now. So to know public opinion in Saudi Arabia is almost impossible. 

A number of people praised Mohammed bin Salman in the West for his crackdown on corruption, that he made a point of cracking down on corruption. And in a sense, even though the optics of the Ritz Carlton were poor, there was a kind of sense that perhaps something was necessary and that he was doing the right thing.

Well, I have my doubts about the anti-corruption campaign. It was an attempt to eliminate rivals whether they are royalty or important people in the financial sector. It was a purge, really, not an anti-corruption drive. 

Did it work?

Well, it seems that it did work, because all the princes who had been put in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) now are silent. And in fact, some of them like Al-Waleed Bin Talal are so keen to appear side by side with Mohammed bin Salman in public events and filmed next to him. So he sent the right message that, “If you mess around with me, I have all the means of coercion in the country, and I could put you back in the Ritz Carlton.” So it seems that it has worked. It was an intimidation campaign. 

Has his policy towards Israel set a new precedent? And is there hope there that, in fact, there can be some kind of progress toward peace?

There is progress towards normalization with Israel given the technological transfers from Israel to Saudi Arabia, the help with intelligence that are already documented. However, I think Mohammed bin Salman and closeness to Netanyahu will not deliver peace simply because peace has to be delivered in the territories where it matters.

And Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman could have the closest relationship. But that will not change the fact that there’s an occupied territory. There is a Palestinian population under occupation that is suffocating in places like Raza. And therefore, he could sign a peace treaty with Israel, open Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf countries — that is happening already.

This doesn’t mean that there will be peace in the Middle East especially between Israelis and Palestinians. We have seen that in 1979, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel and followed by a peace treaty with Jordan. But has the Palestinian problem disappeared or vanished? And I think it will be the same if Saudi Arabia signed a peace treaty with Israel.

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