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Saudi-Israeli deal 'closer every day', says Mohammed bin Salman

Crown prince discusses Iranian nuclear weapons and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi during wide-ranging interview in English
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace in 2021 (AFP)

A normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel is getting closer "every day", Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said on Wednesday during a rare interview with English-speaking media. 

“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” he told Fox News. "We hope that will reach a place, that it will ease the life of the Palestinians, get Israel as a player in the Middle East."

The crown prince also described the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which he is accused of ordering, as "a mistake".

For months, the United States has been leading efforts to strike a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel that would establish formal ties.

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 West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

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Asked if recent talks had been suspended, Mohammed bin Salman denied recent reports, stating: "Every day we get closer." 

Fox News said it was the the crown prince's first interview with a major American broadcaster since 2019. It was also the first wide-ranging discussion to be carried out entirely in English. 

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

The crown prince signalled that Saudi Arabia would obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran did too. 

"We are concerned if any country getting a nuclear weapon... that's a bad move," 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 mean you are in a war with the rest of the world."

But he added that if Iran were to get one, "we will have to get one, for security reasons, for balancing power". 

Riyadh and Tehran have had a tumultuous relationship dating back to Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, but officially restored ties after years of animosity during China-brokered talks in March.

Khashoggi and human rights 

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 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. 

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. 

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Qahtani was banned from entering the US, the UK and other European countries, and was among the 17 Saudis sanctioned by the US Treasury over Khashoggi's murder, based on intelligence reports that he was involved in the operation.

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, adding that he wanted to change some of Saudi Arabia's laws. 

"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". 

Mohammed bin Salman also defended the Saudi Public Investment Fund's decision to invest $2bn in Jared Kushner's firm Affinity Partners. 

He said that in the event that Kushner's father-in-law, Donald Trump, was re-elected, the investment would likely remain intact.

"If it’s not legal, then, definitely, we have to work it out, but if it’s legal, what’s the problem?" he said. 

'I will continue doing sportswashing'

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. 

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

"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."

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