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Saudi's crown prince speaks out on his country's reforms, troubled reputation

In first US interview, MBS discusses Saudi's problems and promise on '60 Minutes'
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (AFP/file photo)

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is scheduled to meet with US President Donald Trump in Washington on Tuesday.

Mutual rival Iran will be high on the agenda, but the 32-year-old prince will also be looking to showcase his sweeping changes to Saudi society and an increasingly assertive foreign policy that includes a war in Yemen.

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This week, he embarks on a cross-country American tour, where he'll pitch his kingdom to business executives and a sceptical US public, the New York Times reported. He was named heir to the throne nine months ago by his 82-year-old father, King Salman, who granted his son vast new powers.

Known by his initials - MBS - his reforms inside Saudi Arabia have been revolutionary by Saudi standards. He has lifted restrictions on women driving and attending public music events, re-introduced cinema and launched a crackdown on corruption.

In his first interview with an American television network, he was eager to discuss his country's promise and its troubled reputation head-on.

The following are quotations from an interview he gave to CBS News on Sunday’s 60 Minutes programme.

The war in Yemen

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia has been warring for three years with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who the prince maintains are backed by predominantly Shia Iran, Bloomberg News said. Thousands have died in air strikes and from a naval blockade that impeded humanitarian aid.

Bin Salman said the rebels have launched missiles at his nation’s capital, Riyadh, and that the US wouldn’t tolerate comparable attacks on its cities from, for example, Mexico. Still, when asked to acknowledge the Yemeni death toll, the prince called the situation painful while shifting responsibility for it to the enemy.

“I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community,” he said. “They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.”

The role of women

Prince Mohammed has implemented some reforms on women's rights, loosening clothing restrictions, pushing for greater participation in the workforce, and, significantly, lifting a ban on women driving.

But guardianship laws, which require women to seek the permission of male relatives for a host of activities, remain in place.

"We have extremists who 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 work place. Many of those ideas contradict the way of life during the time of the Prophet," he said. 

"We are all human beings and there is no difference."

He has curbed the powers of the country's so-called "religious police," who until recently were able to arrest women for not covering up, the NYT said. He questioned the traditional interpretation of modesty in women's attire imposed in the kingdom.

“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men. This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”

His words are significant, and so far, the kingdom's religious leaders are holding their tongues, and have sworn allegiance to the young prince.

Roots of Saudi extremism

The prince acknowledged Saudi society was dominated by a particularly harsh strain of conservative Islam, which he traces back to 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the seizure by militants of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

"We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal," he said.

"This is not the real Saudi Arabia. I would ask your viewers to use their smartphones to find out. And they can Google Saudi Arabia in the 70s and 60s, and they will see the real Saudi Arabia easily in the pictures.

"We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries. Women were driving cars. There were movie theatres in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979."

The purge

He defended at length his anti-corruption purge which saw many of the kingdom's princes and tycoons detained for several weeks inside Riyadh's luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel - widely seen as an attempt to cement his grip on power.

"What we did in Saudi Arabia was extremely necessary" and legal, he said.

He said he was able to recover more than "$100 billion" of ill-gotten wealth from the detainees, but added: "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."

His personal wealth

The prince has been accused of hypocrisy over his opulent lifestyle at a time his government is preaching greater austerity of its citizens and has imposed new taxes.

He was recently revealed as the owner of a French chateau described as the world's most expensive home, according to a report in the New York Times.

But he insisted his wealth was a private matter. "As far as my private expenses, I'm a rich person and not a poor person. I'm not Gandhi or Mandela." 

He added: "But what I do as a person is to spend part of my personal income on charity. I spend at least 51 percent on people and 49 on myself."

Ascent to the throne

As heir to the throne after his father King Salman dies, the young prince could be set to rule the kingdom for the next half century or more.

Asked what could stop him, he replied: "Only death."

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