This much, at least, can be said for Mohammed bin Salman, the putatively reformist crown prince of Saudi Arabia: He has made all the right enemies. Among those who would celebrate his end are the leaders of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas, as well as Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and the entire clerical and military leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a bonus, there are members of his own family, the sprawling, sclerotic, self-dealing House of Saud, who would like to see him gone—or at the very least, warehoused at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, where the 32-year-old prince recently imprisoned many of his enemies and cousins during an anti-corruption sweep of the kingdom.
The well-protected Prince Mohammed does not seem particularly worried about mortal threats, however. He was jovial to the point of ebullience when I met him at his brother’s compound outside Washington (his brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.). Prince Mohammed (who is known widely by his initials, MbS) seemed eager to download his heterodoxical, contentious views on a number of subjects—on women’s rights (he appears doubtful about the laws that force Saudi women to travel with male relatives); on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is, in the prince’s mind, worse than Hitler; and on Israel. He told me he recognizes the right of the Jewish people to have a nation-state of their own next to a Palestinian state; no Arab leader has ever acknowledged such a right.
Prince Mohammed, who is on a seemingly endless pilgrimage to the nodes of American power (he is in Hollywood this week) is an unfamiliar type for Middle East reporters accustomed to a certain style of Saudi leadership, which is to say, the functionally comatose model of authoritarian monarchism. Prince Mohammed’s father, the 82-year-old King Salman, is not overly infirm, but it is clear that his son is already in charge. And if the prince, his many handlers, and his partisans on Wall Street and in the White House (especially his fellow prince, Jared Kushner) are to be believed, he is in a genuine hurry to overturn the traditional Saudi order.
Prince Mohammed’s visit to the U.S. is mainly a hunting trip for investment, and an opportunity for him to sell his so-called Vision 2030, an elaborate, still mainly unexecuted plan to modernize the Kingdom and end its dependence on oil. But in our conversation, I tried to focus Prince Mohammed on some of the more challenging problems of the moment, including his country’s cold war with Iran; its often-brutal military intervention in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi; the status of women in a country that has practiced a form of gender apartheid for decades; Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel and the Palestinians; and his country’s own past support for Muslim extremists of the type he now condemns. I did not ask him about corruption, in part because it is a difficult-to-define concept in a country named for its ruling family, the expropriation of national wealth being a defining feature of absolute monarchies. But it is worth noting that Prince Mohammed recently purchased a yacht allegedly worth half-a-billion dollars. When Norah O’Donnell, of CBS, asked the prince about this, and other purchases, he said, “My personal life is something I’d like to keep to myself and I don’t try to draw attention to it. … As far as my private expenses, I’m a rich person and not a poor person. I’m not Gandhi or Mandela.”
Prince Mohammed dodges questions he doesn’t like, but he is still unusually direct for a Saudi leader. He reminded me in our meeting of Jordan’s King Abdullah II—a new-generation royal frustrated by do-nothing relatives, retrograde tribal politics, and fearful of both Shiite and Sunni extremism. (One difference, of course, is that Saudi Arabia is the linchpin of the Middle East; Jordan is not. If Prince Mohammed actually achieves what he says he wants to achieve, the Middle East will be a changed place.)
The prince, in my conversation with him, divided the Middle East into two warring camps: what he called the “triangle of evil,” consisting of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunni terror groups; and an alliance of self-described moderate states that includes Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman. About his bête noir, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Prince Mohammed said, “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.”
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.)
Our conversation took place in Prince Khalid’s living room, beneath a painting depicting the 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia (and grandfather of Mohammed and Khalid). Prince Khalid joined us, as did a wide array of aides and advisers, who sat on two couches and frowned with concern when it seemed as if the prince was veering toward bluntness. They seemed worried when the conversation turned to the matter of Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship” laws, which forbid Saudi women and girls from traveling without the permission of a male sponsor. Prince Mohammed, who recently lifted a ban that kept women from driving, seemed eager to acknowledge that he wanted to bring about an end to these guardianship rules. “Before 1979 there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia,” he said, referring to a hinge year in Saudi history, in which the Iranian revolution, as well as an extremist Sunni siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, caused a conservative backlash in the kingdom. “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.”
On issues related to human rights, openness, and the continued efficacy of the absolute monarchy model of governance, the crown prince was more circumspect and defensive, as you will see in this edited and condensed transcript of our conversation:
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.
Goldberg: About the triangle—
MbS: First in the triangle we have the Iranian regime that wants to spread their extremist ideology, their extremist Shiite ideology. They believe that if they spread it, the hidden Imam will come back again and he will rule the whole world from Iran and spread Islam even to America. They’ve said this every day since the Iranian revolution in 1979. It’s in their law and they’re proving it by their own actions.
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: Isn’t it true, though, that after 1979, but before 1979 as well, the more conservative factions in Saudi Arabia were taking oil money and using it to export a more intolerant, extremist version of Islam, Wahhabist ideology, which could be understood as a kind of companion ideology to Muslim Brotherhood thinking?
MbS: First of all, this Wahhabism—please define it for us. We’re not familiar with it. We don’t know about it.
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.
But our project is based on the people, on economic interests, and not on expansionist ideological interests. Of course we have things in common. All of us are Muslim, all of us speak Arabic, we all have the same culture and the same interest. When people speak of Wahhabism, they don’t know exactly what they are talking about. Abd al-Wahhab’s family, the al-Sheikh family, is today very well known, but there are tens of thousands of important families in Saudi Arabia today. And you will find a Shiite in the cabinet, you will find Shiites in government, the most important university in Saudi Arabia is headed by a Shiite. So we believe that we are a mix of Muslim schools and sects.
Goldberg: But what about the funding of extremists?
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.
We tried to control and manage their movements. But then came 1979, which exploded everything. The Iranian revolution [created] a regime based on an ideology of pure evil. A regime not working for the people, but serving an ideology. And in the Sunni world, extremists were trying to copy the same thing. We had the attack in Mecca [on the Grand Mosque]. We were in a situation of revolution in Iran, and they were trying to copy it in Mecca. 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.
Goldberg: I spent a lot of time in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late 1990s, early 2000s, and it was generally understood that the militant madrassas were getting money from Saudi Arabia. It seems from what you’re saying that things got out of control—your government, your family, didn’t control spending and ideological support, and then it came back and hurt not only you but your friends and allies as well. Your big project, if I understand correctly, is to try to contain some of the things that were unleashed by your country.
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: This is what America wanted us to do. We had a king who paid with his life trying to counter these people, King Faisal, one of the greatest kings of Saudi Arabia. When it comes to financing extremist groups, I challenge anyone if he can bring any evidence that the Saudi government financed terrorist groups. Yes, there are people from Saudi Arabia who financed terrorist groups. This is against Saudi law. We have a lot of people in jail now, not only for financing terrorist groups, but even for supporting them. One of the reasons we have a problem with Qatar is that we are not allowing them to use the financial system between us to collect money from Saudis and give it to extremist organizations.
Goldberg: You think you’ll ever be friendly again with Qatar?
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: Is the problem in your mind religious?
MbS: As I told you, the Shiites are living normally in Saudi Arabia. We have no problem with the Shiites. We have a problem with the ideology of the Iranian regime. Our problem is, we don’t think they have the right to interfere with our affairs.
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.
We are pushing back on these Iranian moves. We’ve done this in Africa, Asia, in Malaysia, in Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon. We believe that after we push back, the problems will move inside Iran. We don’t know if the regime will collapse or not—it’s not the target, but if collapses, great, it’s their problem. We have a war scenario in the Middle East right now. This is very dangerous for the world. We cannot take the risk here. We have to take serious painful decisions now to avoid painful decisions later.
Goldberg: Speaking of painful decisions, are you making the situation in Yemen worse though military actions that are causing humanitarian catastrophes? There’s a lot of justified criticism of your bombing campaigns.
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.
What I want to say here, to make it simple, is that sometimes in the Middle East you don’t have good decisions and bad decisions. Sometimes you have bad decisions and worse decisions. Sometimes we have to choose the bad option. We don’t want to come here, as Saudi Arabia, and be asked these questions. We want to be asked about the economy, our partnerships, investment in America and Saudi Arabia. We don’t want to spend our lives arguing about Yemen. This is not something about choice here. This is about security and life for us.
Goldberg: Do you believe in women’s equality?
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: You’re going to get rid of these laws?
MbS: There are a lot of conservative families in Saudi Arabia. There are a lot of families divided inside. Some families like to have authority over their members, and some women don’t want the control of the men. There are families where this is okay. There are families that are open and giving women and daughters what they want. So if I say yes to this question, that means I’m creating problems for the families that don’t want to give freedom for their daughters. Saudis don’t want to lose their identity but we want to be part of the global culture. We want to merge our culture with global identity.
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: That’s very clever, but it avoids the subject.
MbS: Okay, each country, each regime, it has to do what the people think is workable. Saudi Arabia is a network of thousands of absolute monarchies, and then has a large absolute monarchy. We have tribal monarchies, town monarchies. Moving against this structure would create huge problems in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi fabric is much more complicated than you think. And actually our king doesn’t have absolute power. His power is based in law. If he is making a royal decree, he can’t say, “I’m King Salman and I’m doing this.” If you read decrees, you first see the list of laws that allow the king to take this decision. By the way, the queen of the United Kingdom, she has absolute power with any law. But she doesn’t practice it. So it’s complicated.
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: Let’s talk about the broader Middle East. Do you believe the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland?
MbS: 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. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.
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?