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Eleven things we learned from Saudi crown prince interview

Mohammed bin Salman talks Israel normalisation, nuclear weapons, India rail links and his love of video games in wide-ranging interview
A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on 27 April 2021 shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in capital Riyadh (AFP)
A handout picture provided by Saudi Royal Palace on 27 April 2021 shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in capital Riyadh (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave his first-ever wide-ranging interview in English this week. 

In a 30-minute segment on Fox News' Special Report programme with host Bret Baier, first broadcast on Wednesday, the de facto leader of the Gulf kingdom discussed topics ranging from Israeli normalisation to nuclear weapons, human rights abuses, and his love of video games. 

Fox News said it was the crown prince's first interview with a major American broadcaster since 2019.

The sit-down took place in Sindalah, a new Red Sea island resort built as part of the Neom megacity project. 

Middle East Eye breaks down the key talking points from the interview: 

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Keen on India-Middle East rail project 

Mohammed bin Salman made clear his support for a transport project linking India, the Middle East and Europe. 

“If you want to manufacture in your country, if you want to move goods, it's important to have a good logistic plan,” he said. 

The new transport link, first touted earlier this month and dubbed the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, or Imec, aims to establish railway lines and shipping that will pass through the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel, and then reach Greece and Europe. 

“That project will cut the time of goods from India to Europe by three to six days,” he said. “So why not?”

He said the project was not just about goods, railways and ports, but also the linking of energy grids and data cables. 

“So it's a big deal for us and for Europe and for India,” the crown prince said. 

MEE reported two weeks ago that Turkey’s President Erdogan pushed back on the plans, stating: “There is no corridor without Turkey.”

Ties with Israel closer ‘every day’

While several of its Arab neighbours normalised relations with Israel in recent years, as part of Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia has not yet followed suit. 

But that may change in the near future. 

“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” Mohammed bin Salman said, without elaborating further on exactly what his terms are. 

Saudi Arabia has held out the offer to normalise ties with Israel since 2002 under the Arab Peace Plan, which calls for an independent Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

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He denied reports that negotiations had been suspended, adding: “Every day we get closer.”

The leader also asserted that Riyadh would work with any Israeli leader, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

“If the [President Joe] Biden administration succeeded to make, I believe, the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War, then we're going to start a relationship and that relationship [is] going to be continued regardless of who's running Israel,” he said. 

He was asked what concessions he would expect Israel to give to the Palestinians. 

“That's part of the negotiation,” he responded. 

“I want to see really a good life for the Palestinians,” he added, without elaborating on what that would entail. 

‘If Iran gets nuclear weapons, we get one’ 

The crown prince was asked about nuclear weapons, mostly in relation to Iran

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“We are concerned of any country getting a nuclear weapon,” he said. “They don't need to get nuclear weapon because you cannot use it.”

“The world cannot see another Hiroshima. If the world sees 100,000 people dead, that means you are in a war with the rest of the world.”

But despite his assertion that world powers cannot use the weapons, he says there is one circumstance where Saudi Arabia would develop one. 

“If [Iran] gets one, we have to get one. For security reasons, for balancing power in the Middle East. But we don't want to see that,” he said. 

Elsewhere on Iran, he welcomed Riyadh and Tehran normalising ties in March, following a seven-year fallout. 

“We have a long fight with Iran since ‘79. We don't want that to be the norm in the Middle East,” the crown prince said. 

If there is an opportunity to shift that and… bringing Iran to work with the Arab world, with the Middle East, why not?”

'We want to start to invest in Yemen'

The de facto Saudi leader spoke about the situation in Yemen, though was not challenged on Riyadh’s military involvement there. 

The interviewer said Iran was fighting a “proxy war in Yemen”, but did not question the crown prince on the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s military involvement in the country. 

Instead, Baier referred to Riyadh sending “billions of dollars” to Yemen, which he said, “doesn’t get covered a lot”. 

“We are the biggest country in the world who give aid to Yemen in the past, today and tomorrow,” Mohammed bin Salman said. 

“We want to increase that. And also we want to start to invest in Yemen in the economic part.”

“Even if there is a ceasefire, there is no political agreement yet, but we are trying to push all the areas forward day by day.”

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition, which included the UAE, intervened on behalf of the Yemeni government to push back the Iran-aligned Houthis after they took control of the capital Sanaa.

Coalition air strikes killed thousands of civilians, according to UN reports, while the Houthis launched missiles and drones at civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

‘Joining Brics is not anti-West’

Mohammed bin Salman did not hide his desire to join the Brics grouping of fast-growing economies and does not see that as an attack on other groupings. 

“Brics is not about political alignments,” he said. 

He explained that within the G20, which Saudi Arabia is a part of, Riyadh attempted to become part of the G7, but was unable to do so. 

“If we continue for one decade without being part of [the G7], that could really create obstacles for us economically. So Brics is an option,” he added. 

“Brics is not a group against America or the West. You have a lot of allies in Brics. You have India, Brazil, and you have South Africa.”

He added that within that grouping, he often spoke with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. 

“If you see China failing, it's around 13 to 14 percent of the world's GDP and it's around 15 to 20 percent of the world population,” Mohammed bin Salman claimed. 

“That country falls, everyone on the planet falls. Even America.”

Condemns Russian invasion of Ukraine 

The 38-year-old took the opportunity to express his rejection of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

“What's happening there, it's something bad. We don't want to see it,” he said. 

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“The Russians have their excuse of why they did that, of expanding Nato… but invading a country is really bad.”

He noted that Saudi Arabia voted to condemn the invasion at the United Nations, but added that Riyadh maintains ties with both countries. 

In a follow-up question, he was asked to respond to Ukraine supporters who deemed Saudi Arabia’s hiking of oil prices following the war as “boosting Russia’s war effort”. 

“If we are doing a deal in Opec+ countries to support Russia... Iran is part of the Opec+ country. And at that time, Iran was our enemy,” the crown prince said. “That doesn't make any sense.” 

“For us in Saudi Arabia, we just watch supply [and] demand.” 

Khashoggi murder was a ‘mistake’

Ahead of the five-year anniversary of the murder of Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the crown prince described the incident as a "mistake". 

Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi agents at the kingdom's Istanbul consulate in 2018. The CIA concluded that the crown prince had signed off on the operation, an allegation Riyadh denies.

"We take all the legal measurements that any country took," Mohammed bin Salman said.

"Also, we try to reform the security system to be sure that these kind of mistakes doesn't happen again, and we can see in the past five years nothing of those things happened. It's not part of what Saudi Arabia do."

He claimed that all those who were involved had served jail time - though wasn’t pressed on this by the interviewer. 

Earlier this year, Saud al-Qahtani, a former senior aide to the crown prince and prime suspect in Khashoggi's murder, was seen in public for the first time since the assassination. Others accused by the US authorities of involvement in murder are allegedly living in “seven-star villas”. 

Judges can't ‘ignore the law’ on executions

The de-facto Saudi leader was also asked to confirm reports that Mohammed al-Ghamdi, a retired teacher, was sentenced to death for remarks made on Twitter and YouTube to a handful of followers.

“Shamefully, it’s true. It’s something I don’t like,” he said.

Despite Saudi Arabia being an absolute monarchy, the crown prince suggested that there were laws he wanted changed but could not currently carry out. 

"We are not happy with that. We are ashamed of that. But [under] the jury system, you have to follow the laws and I cannot tell a judge [to] do that and ignore the law, because… that’s against the rule of law," he added.

"But do we have bad laws? Yes. We are changing that, yes."

Pressed on whether he expected Ghamdi to be executed, the crown prince said he hoped the judge would be "more experienced" and look at it "totally differently".

‘I don’t care about sportswashing label’

The crown prince swatted away criticism about Saudi Arabia's increased investment in sports, which have been deemed by some as an attempt to "sportswash" the country's reputation. 

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"If sportswashing [is] going to increase my GDP by way of one percent, then I will continue doing sportswashing," he said.

Asked about his thoughts on the term sportwashing, he responded: "I don’t care.”

“One percent growth of GDP from sport and I’m aiming for another one and a half percent - call it whatever you want, we’re going to get that one and a half percent."

He also added that he has begun to play golf, and is a keen hiker and diver.

He also said he enjoyed watching Saudi Arabia beat Argentina at last year’s World Cup with his family. 

“We just wanted to get out from this game with no humiliation. We got surprised,” he said. 

Crown prince loves superlatives 

Throughout the interview, the crown prince drew on several statistics, using superlatives about Saudi Arabia and the world. 

“We are the fastest-growing country on the planet, and we have the most ambitious projects in all sectors,” he said at one point. 

“We are the fastest in each industry in the planet.”

Asked what he would respond to anyone worried about visiting the kingdom, he responded: “The greatest success story in the 21st century is Saudi Arabia. This is the story of the century. Do you want to miss it or not? That's your call.”

He also drew on data, seemingly from the top of his head, all throughout the interview. 

“We are now ranked number one in the Middle East [for tourism],” he said during the interview. “Six years ago, we were not even in the top 10 list in the Middle East. And we are now in 2022, we are number 10th in the globe.”

Video games ‘disconnect me from reality’

How does the Saudi crown prince blow off steam, Baier asked towards the end of the interview. 

“Video games,” he responded immediately. “Since I'm kid, I love it. Because it disconnected me from reality.”

He said that he liked to play e-sports with his children and friends to “disconnect for a few hours”. 

“E-sports is one of the most important things happening globally,” he said. “It grows by 30 percent every year.”

“One of the streamers on E-sport, he has more than 2 billion views. [That’s] more than the biggest Hollywood movie,” he claimed. 

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