In a wide-ranging conversation, Prince Mohammed bin Salman also recognized the Jewish peoples’ right to “their own land.”
Another key—though sub rosa—member of Prince Mohammed’s alliance is Israel, a country about which Prince Mohammed did not have a bad word to say. In fact, when I asked him whether he believed the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland, he said: “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.” According to the former U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross, moderate Arab leaders have spoken of the reality of Israel’s existence, but acknowledgement of any sort of “right” to Jewish ancestral land has been a red line no leader has crossed until now. (My meeting with Prince Mohammed took place before the recent fatal violence on the Gaza-Israel border, but I do not believe that the crown prince would have moderated his views in light of these events. The Saudis, like many Arab leaders, have tired of the Palestinians.)
Goldberg: It’s good to hear about some of the things you are promising to do in Saudi Arabia, but it’s very early in the process. Yours is a big, complicated country, and it’s very hard to shift culture. Could you start by talking about Islam, the role you think Islam should play in the world?
Mohammed bin Salman: 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.
Now, today, in the triangle of evil—
Goldberg: The triangle of evil?
MbS: Yes, I will explain in a moment. 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. 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. Today, every human has the right to choose their belief. 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.
The second part of the triangle is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is another extremist organization. They want to use the democratic system to rule countries and build shadow caliphates everywhere. Then they would transform into a real Muslim empire. And the other part is the terrorists—al-Qaeda, ISIS—that want to do everything with force. Al-Qaeda leaders, ISIS leaders, they were all Muslim Brotherhood first. Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of ISIS. This is very clear.
This triangle is promoting an idea that God and Islam are not asking us to promote. Their idea is totally against the principles of the United Nations, and the idea of different nations having laws that represent their needs. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Yemen—all of these countries are defending the idea that independent nations should focus on their own interests, in building good relations on the foundation of UN principles. The evil triangle doesn’t want to do that.
Goldberg: What do you mean you don’t know about it?
MbS: What is Wahhabism?
Goldberg: You’re the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. You know what Wahhabism is.
MbS: No one can define this Wahhabism.
Goldberg: It’s a movement founded by Ibn abd al-Wahhab in the 1700s, very fundamentalist in nature, an austere Salafist-style interpretation—
MbS: No one can define Wahhabism. There is no Wahhabism. We don’t believe we have Wahhabism. We believe we have, in Saudi Arabia, Sunni and Shiite. We believe we have within Sunni Islam four schools of thought, and we have the ulema [the religious authorities] and the Board of Fatwas [which issues religious rulings]. Yes, in Saudi Arabia it’s clear that our laws are coming from Islam and the Quran, but we have the four schools—Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki—and they argue about interpretation.
The first Saudi state, why was it established? After the Prophet Muhammad and the first four caliphs, the people of the Arabian Peninsula went back to fighting each other like they did for thousands of years. But our family, 600 years ago, established a town from scratch called Diriyah, and with this town came the first Saudi state. It became the most powerful economic part of the peninsula. They helped change reality. Most other towns, they fought over trade, hijacked trade, but our family said to two other tribes, “Instead of attacking the trade routes, why don’t we hire you as guards for this area?” So trade grew, and the town grew. This was the method. Three hundred years later, this is still the way. The thought was always that you need all the great brains of the Arabian Peninsula—the generals, the tribal leaders, the scholars—working with you. One of them was Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab.
MbS: When you talk about funding before 1979, you are talking about the Cold War. You had communism spreading everywhere, threatening the United States and Europe and also us. Egypt had turned in that time to this sort of regime. We worked with whomever we could use to get rid of communism. Among those was the Muslim Brotherhood. We financed them in Saudi Arabia. And the United States of America financed them.
Goldberg: Was it a mistake?
MbS: If we went back in time, we would do the same thing. We would use these people again. Because we were confronting a bigger danger—getting rid of communism. Later on we had to see how we could deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. Remember, one of the presidents of the United States called these people freedom fighters.
MbS: We used the Muslim Brotherhood in the Cold War—we did, both of us—
Goldberg: I’m not saying the U.S. is innocent here—
MbS: It has to happen, one day. We hope they learn fast. It depends on them.
Goldberg: You speak extraordinarily bluntly about Iran and its ideology. You’ve even equated the supreme leader to Hitler. What makes him a Hitler? Hitler is the worst thing you can be.
MbS: I believe that the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good.
MbS: Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. This is bad.
Goldberg: Yes, very bad.
MbS: But the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world. They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East. In the 1920s and 1930s, no one saw Hitler as a danger. Only a few people. Until it happened. We don’t want to see what happened in Europe happen in the Middle East. We want to stop this through political moves, economic moves, intelligence moves. We want to avoid war.
Goldberg: I’m curious about Donald Trump and Barack Obama on this issue. It seems you think Donald Trump has a better understanding of this issue than Barack Obama.
MbS: Both of them understand it. I believe that President Obama had different tactics. President Obama believed that if he gave Iran opportunities to open up, it would change. But with a regime based on this ideology, it will not open up soon. Sixty percent of the Iranian economy is controlled by the Revolutionary Guard. The economic benefits of the Iran nuclear deal are not going to the people. They took $150 billion after the deal—can you please name one housing project they built with this money? One park? One industrial zone? Can you name for me the highway that they built? I advise them—please show us something that you’re building a highway with $150 billion. For Saudi Arabia, there is a 0.1 percent chance that this deal would work to change the country. For President Obama it was 50 percent. But even if there’s a 50 percent chance that it would work, we can’t risk it. The other 50 percent is war. We have to go to a scenario where there is no war.
MbS: First of all, we have to go back to real evidence, real data. Yemen started to collapse not in 2015 [when the Saudis intervened], but in 2014—based on UN reports, not based on our reports. So it’s collapsing for one year before of the campaign started. We had a coup d’état in 2015 against a legitimate government in Yemen. And from the other side al-Qaeda tried to use this move for its own sake and to promote its own ideas. We fought to get rid of extremists in Syria and Iraq and then they started to create a haven in Yemen. It would be much harder to get rid of extremists in Yemen than Iraq or Syria. Our campaign is focused on helping the legitimate government and bringing stability. Saudi Arabia is trying to help the people of Yemen. The biggest donor to Yemen is Saudi Arabia. The people who are manipulating this aid in the 10 percent of Yemen not controlled by the government is the Houthis.
MbS: I support Saudi Arabia, and half of Saudi Arabia is women. So I support women.
Goldberg: But equality? Equalizing society?
MbS: In our religion there is no difference between men and women. There are duties to men and duties to women. There are different forms of equality. In the Saudi government women are paid exactly like men. We have regulations like this that are going into the private sector. We don’t want divided treatment for different people.
Goldberg: But what about the guardianship laws? That’s something you want to change for good? I think everyone is impressed that you’re letting women drive, but for many Americans the main issues are the real structural impediments to women’s equality.
MbS: Before 1979 there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t go back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. In the 1960s women didn’t travel with male guardians. But it happens now, and we want to move on it and figure out a way to treat this that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.
Goldberg: This is a values question. You come from a country that’s very different than ours—yours is an absolute monarchy, a place where people don’t have the right to vote, you have corporal punishment and capital punishment carried out in ways that a lot of Americans don’t like—
MbS: We don’t share values. But I also believe that different states in the United States don’t share values. There are different values between California and Texas. So how come you want us to share your values 100 percent when you are not sharing values? Of course there is a foundation of values that all humans share. But there are differences, state-to-state, country-to-country.
Goldberg: But absolute monarchy?
MbS: Absolute monarchy is not a threat to any country. You say “absolute monarchy” like it’s a threat. If it were not for absolute monarchy, you wouldn’t have the United States. The absolute monarch in France helped the creation of the United States by giving it support. Absolute monarchy is not an enemy of the United States. It’s an ally for a very long time.
Goldberg: Could you see yourself moving toward a system in which people vote for their representatives? When you start to let people choose who represents them, that’s change.
MbS: What I can do is encourage the power of law. We would like to encourage freedom of speech as much as we can, so long as we don’t give opportunity to extremism. We can improve women’s rights, improve the economy. There is tension here, but we should do it.
One American visitor told me a really interesting thing. He said that Americans don’t recognize the difference between the two things—there is the end, and there is the means. 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.
Goldberg: You have no religious-based objection to the existence of Israel?
MbS: We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people.
Goldberg: Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a place that has produced a lot of anti-Semitic propaganda. Do you think you have a problem with anti-Semitism in your country?
MbS: Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Our Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman. Not just a friend—he married her. Our prophet, his neighbors were Jewish. You will find a lot of Jews in Saudi Arabia coming from America, coming from Europe. There are no problems between Christian and Muslims and Jews. We have problems like you would find anywhere in the world, among some people. But the normal sort of problems.
Goldberg: Do you think Iran is bringing you and Israel together? Without Iran, could you imagine a situation in which you had other interests in common with Israel?
MbS: I believe humans learn to the last days of their life. Anyone who claims he knows everything doesn’t know anything. What we are trying to do is to learn fast, to understand fast, to be surrounded by smart people. I don’t believe my youth is a problem. I believe the best creations in the world came from young people. Apple is a good example. Apple was created by Steve Jobs, who was in his early 20s when he started inventing. Social media, Facebook, created by guy who is still young. I believe that my generation can add a lot of things.
Goldberg: One thing Steve Jobs had was freedom. He lived in a country where you could do anything. I don’t think anyone would describe Saudi Arabia as a place where you can do anything from a human rights perspective, from the perspective of freedom.
MbS: In Saudi Arabia you can do whatever you want to do in a business, in what kind of work and what kind of project you want to develop. Also, there is a different standard of freedom of speech. In Saudi Arabia we have just three lines—anyone can write whatever they want to write, speak about whatever they want to speak about, but they shouldn’t reach these three lines. This is not based on the interest of the government, but on the interest of the people. Line one is Islam. You cannot defame Islam. Line two—in America, you can attack a person and his company or a minister and his ministry. In Saudi Arabia it’s okay to attack a ministry or a company, but the culture of the Saudis, they don’t like to attack a person, and they like to leave the personal issue out of it. This is part of the Saudi culture.
The third line is national security. We are in an area not surrounded by Mexico, Canada, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. We have ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hamas and Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, and even pirates. We have pirates that hijack ships. So anything that touches the national security, we cannot risk in Saudi Arabia. We don’t want to see things that happen in Iraq happening in Saudi Arabia. But other than that, people have the freedom to do whatever they want to do. For example, we didn’t block Twitter. Or access to social media. Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat. Name it, it’s open for all Saudis. We have the highest percentage of people around the world using social media. In Iran they block social media and in other countries they block social media. Saudis have free access to whatever media around the world.
Goldberg: I’m not so sure that Twitter is good for civilization, but that’s for a future conversation. Thank you very much.
Source:@The Atlantic – Saudi Crown Prince: Iran’s Supreme Leader ‘Makes Hitler Look Good’