Saudi Crown Prince talks to CBS about Iran, humanitarian crisis in Yemen and his country’s future

Ahram Online , Monday 19 Mar 2018

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with contributor Norah O'Donnell CBS NEWS

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, was named heir to the throne nine months ago by his father, the 82-year-old King Salman, and his reforms inside the country have been revolutionary, as he allowed women to drive, enter sports stadiums and start their own business without male permission.

He also lifted a decades-long ban on cinema and music festivals, and has cracked down on corruption.

Bin Salman arrived in the United States on Monday for an extended visit where he is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump on Tuesday. The situation in Yemen and Iran, as well as Saudi political developments, are among topics to be discussed in their meeting.

The Crown Prince’s visit to Washington is the third leg of an international diplomatic tour that started two weeks ago in Cairo for three days, and then to the UK for another three, where he was greeted by Queen Elizabeth II and held talks with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, before heading back to Riyadh on Saturday.

On Sunday, ahead of his trip to the US, CBS News programme 60 Minutes aired an interview with the prince; his first with an American television network.

The first question Bin Salman was asked was why he believes that when many Americans think about Saudi Arabia, they think of 9/11 and remember the terrorism that Osama bin Laden brought to American soil

“Osama bin Laden recruited 15 Saudis in the 9/11 attacks with a clear objective. According to the CIA documents and Congressional investigations, Osama bin Laden wanted to create a schism between the Middle East and the West, between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America in order to create an environment conducive to recruitment and spreading his radical message that the west is plotting to destroy you. Indeed, he succeeded in creating this schism in the West,” he said

“I am always working hard [on this front], and I believe that we have succeeded in many respects in the last three years. There are a lot of challenges. I think the first big challenge that we have is, do the people believe in what we are doing?”

When asked if it is true that the kind of Islam practiced inside Arabia is strict and intolerant, Prince Mohammed acknowledged that after 1979, that had been the case, when Ayatollah Khomeini established the Islamic republic in Iran, then religious extremists in Saudi Arabia took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in order to appease their own religious radicals.

“We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this, the extremists forbid mixing between the two sexes and are unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace. Many of those ideas contradict with the way of life during the time of the prophet and the Caliphs,” he added.

Regarding the so-called "religious police," who until recently were able to arrest women for not covering up, Bin Salman assured that the laws in Saudi Arabia are very clear, and are part of Islamic law, which calls for women to wear decent clothing. However, he said, it does not particularly specify a black Abaya or a black head cover.

Quashing reports that dozens of people who have criticised his government have been arrested in the last year, including economists, clerics, and intellectuals, the Crown Prince said that Saudi Arabia believes in many of the principles of human rights.

"In fact, we believe in the notion of human rights, but ultimately Saudi standards are not the same as American standards. I don't want to say that we don't have shortcomings. We certainly do. But naturally, we are working to mend these shortcomings," he said.

Bin Salman also said that after detaining high-ranking officials and influential princes in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the kingdom has gathered over $100 billion as part of reconciliation deals.

"The real objective was not this amount or any other amount. The idea is not to get money, but to punish the corrupt and send a clear signal that whoever engages in corrupt deals will face the law," he said.

Defending the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, Bin Salman said that the Iranian ideology has penetrated some parts of Yemen.

"This militia was conducting military manoeuvres right next to our borders and positioning missiles at our borders,” he said.

He also asked if the United States would accept having a militia in Mexico launching missiles on Washington DC, New York and Los Angeles.

He also rejected the description of the situation in Yemen as a proxy war with Iran.

"Unfortunately, Iran is playing a harmful role. The Iranian regime is based on pure ideology. Many of the Al-Qaeda operatives are protected in Iran and it refuses to surrender them to justice, and continues to refuse to extradite them to the United States. This includes the son of Osama bin Laden, the new leader of Al-Qaeda. He lives in Iran and works out of Iran. He is supported by Iran," Bin Salman said.

When asked if the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a battle for Islam, he said that "Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy.  Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia."

On whether Saudi Arabia feels that it needs nuclear weapons to counter Iran, Bin Salman said "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we would follow suit as soon as possible."

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