In an interview with the Atlantic conducted from the compound of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, who happens to be his brother, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) offered strong criticism of Iran and some thoughts about the religious, cultural, and economic upheaval in progress in Saudi Arabia.
In one remarkable exchange, MBS recognized the right of Israel to exist—a bold step for any Arab leader, let alone the next guardian of Mecca and Medina.
Like many other interviewers, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic highlighted 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed’s “directness” as his most arresting attribute. Goldberg amusingly describes the ambassador Prince Khalid and his staff teetering on the edge of a conniption fit every time MBS decided to drop a truth bomb. For example, he calls out the Supreme Leader of Iran as worse than Adolf Hitler.
“I believe the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good. Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. … The supreme leader is trying to conquer the world,” MBS said.
On Israel, Goldberg reports that he “did not have a bad word to say” about the Jewish state, and he went further than any other Arab leader has in acknowledging Israel’s right to exist.
“I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land,” said MBS. He proposed that the Gulf states and their allies like Egypt and Jordan have strong common interests with Israel.
Another interesting part of the interview concerned MBS’ ongoing effort to frame Saudi Arabia as a jovial land of moderate Islam temporarily caught up in the Islamist extremism of the late 1970s. He described his vision of a reformist Kingdom returning to its progressive roots and doing battle against the “triangle of evil” that seeks world conquest through fundamentalist Islam: Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunni terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.
“In this triangle, they are trying to promote the idea that our duty as Muslims is to reestablish the caliphate, to reestablish the mindset of the caliphate—that the glory of Islam is in building an empire by force,” MBS explained. “But God didn’t ask us to do this, and the Prophet Muhammad did not ask us to do this. God only asked us to spread the word. And this mission is accomplished.”
He gave his interpretation of the “Islam is a religion of peace” idea and sought to reconcile it with the violent history of the Middle East:
Islam is a religion of peace. This is the translation of Islam. God, in Islam, gives us two responsibilities: The first is to believe, to do good things, and not bad things. If we do bad things, God will judge us on Judgment Day.
Our second duty as Muslims is to spread the word of God. For 1,400 years, Muslims have been trying to spread the word of God. In the Middle East, in North Africa, in Europe, they weren’t allowed to spread the word. That’s why they fought to spread the word.
But you also see that, in a lot of countries in Asia—Indonesia, Malaysia, India—Muslims were free to spread the word. They were told, “Go ahead, say whatever you want to say, the people have free will to believe whatever they want to believe in.” Islam, in this context, was not about conquering, it was about peacefully spreading the word.
“Today, every human has the right to choose their belief,” MBS noted. “In every country, it is possible to buy religious books. The message is being delivered. We have no duty anymore to fight to spread Islam. But in the triangle of evil, they want to manipulate Muslims, to tell them their duty as Muslims – their dignity as Muslims—requires the establishment of a Muslim empire.”
When Goldberg pointed out that the Wahhabi fundamentalist ideology of Saudi Arabia long predates the dire events of 1979—the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran and the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca—MBS literally responded that he has no idea what “Wahhabism” is.
“This Wahhabism—please define it for us,” he asked Goldberg. “We’re not familiar with it. We don’t know about it.”
When Goldberg attempted a little history lesson about the centuries-old extremist ideology, MBS cut him off and essentially dismissed Wahhabi Islam as tripe, an illegitimate perversion that has no grounding in the recognized schools of Islamic thought. He dismissed Saudi support for Wahhabism in the 20th Century as an unfortunate and unnatural product of Cold War politics, pointedly refusing to denounce it as a mistake, but indicating that it was not something the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would ever consider doing again.
“We were in a situation of revolution in Iran, and they were trying to copy it in Mecca,” he said of the pivotal events of 1979. “We were trying to keep everything tied together, to keep everything from collapsing. We faced terrorism in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt. We called for the arrest of Osama bin Laden very early, because he was not in Saudi Arabia. We suffered quite a lot by fighting terrorism until 9/11 happened. This is the story.”
The crown prince talked about his efforts to reform Saudi society, indicating that he had to proceed carefully in some areas to avoid making problems for “conservative families,” and bluntly indicating that liberalization will stop well short of representative democracy or abolishing the absolute monarchy he will soon inherit.
Political freedom is not in the cards, and neither is freedom of speech, although he claimed free speech is in better shape in his country than in places like Iran. As MBS put it, Saudis merely have to avoid crossing three red lines in their speech: defaming Islam, defaming individual people, or jeopardizing national security.
MBS argued that encouraging the rule of law is more important than changing the method for selecting Saudi Arabia’s rulers, effectively proposing that an enlightened reform-minded monarch is the best hope for real reform under his country’s complex tribal system.
“The end here is development, rights, and freedom. The way to get to it, and this is the American view, is democracy, but the way to get to it in Saudi Arabia is our more complex system,” he said.