The Saudi crown prince began the interview by defending his reform programme entitled ‘Vision 2030’, by providing many figures and technical explanations. “Saudi Arabia existed before oil was discovered,” he said, breaking with the traditional narrative that the Saudi state owes its existence and survival solely to the discovery of black gold in its subsoil.
“Our production has increased slightly over time, but the population has grown very significantly, from three million to 20 million Saudis (…) So oil is less and less able to finance the lifestyle we got used to in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.”
He continued by arguing in favour of diversifying the kingdom’s economy, by using Algeria as an example: “Algeria is an oil country, but is it a rich country?”
He used many English words – “passion”, “V-shape”, “growth”, “we generate money”, “demand”, “supply”, “pillar”, “authentic”, “skills”, etc. – to explain that the world’s oil supply will decline faster than demand, with US and Russian production expected to fall drastically over the next 10 years.
This situation is favourable to Saudi Arabia – which has the world’s largest recorded reserves – but, according to the Saudi crown prince, the kingdom should make an effort to move away from its dependence on oil.
“Ijtihad is always open”
On the issue of religious reforms and individual freedoms, MBS made some surprising statements.
Repeating that he was acting in accordance with “the Saudi Constitution which is the Koran”, he engaged, without appearing to do so, in a critique of the foundations of Saudi-style religiosity, expressing his opinion on the hadiths – the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammed, whose teachings are the basis of Islamic law.
“I cannot enforce a sharia punishment without a clear passage (from the holy texts),” he said. MBS used the example of adultery, citing the case of a woman who confessed to committing adultery to the Prophet, who postponed his judgement and punishment every time. “So to take a Koranic provision (the punishment of adultery) and apply it in a different way than the Prophet did (…), would not be in accordance with God’s law.”
When asked whether he followed the school of thought initiated by Mohammed Ben Abdelwahhab (1703-1792), the theologian from the Najd region who defined Saudi-style Islam (Wahhabism), the crown prince had a surprising answer. “When we devote ourselves to only one scholar or one school, it means that we deify a human being (…) Interpretation (ijtihad) is always open. And if Sheikh Abdelwahhab came out of his grave and saw that we were closing our minds to interpretation and making him sacred, he would be the first to object.”
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This is an iconoclastic statement, which serves perhaps less liberal purposes. “Anyone who adopts an extremist path, even if he is not a terrorist, is considered a criminal and will have to answer to the law,” he then said, without offering a clear explanation of what he meant by “extremist.”
Appeasement with Iran
The last part of the interview was devoted to foreign affairs. Ever since the change of administration in Washington, Saudi-US relations have been strained, as US President Joe Biden decided to stop supporting Saudi Arabia in the Yemen crisis and publicised the report on Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination, which implicated the Saudi crown prince.
Has the White House turned its back on Saudi Arabia? “Two countries never agree 100% on everything,” MBS said. “Even with the Gulf countries, those that are closest to us, disagreements arise (…) With the different American administrations, the disagreements can increase or decrease, but with the Biden administration, we agree 90% on the interests of the Saudi-American relationship. (…) On the 10% of disagreements, we try to find solutions to them.”
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MBS then reiterated — perhaps as a warning to Biden? — that the US would not be what it is today without its partnership with Saudi Arabia for its oil. In regards to the question of US pressure on the kingdom, the prince replied, without referring directly to the US, that Saudi Arabia did not take kindly to countries trying to exert influence on its internal affairs, and argued – in a curious reading of history – that the two world wars were caused by countries interfering in the internal affairs of other nations.
The crown prince also sought to calm the waters with Iran. “Iran is a neighbour. And all we want is to have a good relationship with Iran. We don’t want Iran to be in difficulty, on the contrary, we want a prosperous Iran, with Saudi interests in Iran, and Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia.”
Relations between the two countries have been difficult for several years, as Riyadh blames Tehran for destabilising the Arab world through militias affiliated with it – Hezbollah, the Hashd al-Shaabi and the Houthis, among others. The kingdom is also the target of regular attacks on its infrastructure, especially oil.
“The problem we have with Iran is related to its bad behaviour, whether it is in regards to its nuclear programme, or its support for illegal militias in several countries in the region, and its ballistic missile programme,” said MBS. “We are now working with our global and regional partners to address these issues. We hope to overcome them and maintain a positive relationship with Iran for everyone’s benefit.”
MBS also defended the kingdom’s campaign in Yemen, arguing that no state in the world would accept the presence of an illegal militia – the Houthis – on its borders, before calling on the Houthis to come to the negotiating table.
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