Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, up close

The longtime news show, 60 Minutes, is longtime for a reason: quite often, its people do very good work.  They came up with a useful and interesting interview with Saudi Arabia's new crown prince, who's running the kingdom these days and making unheard of reforms, which gave Americans this past Sunday their first up-close look at the new leader they've been hearing so much about.  Not to be too P.R.-ish, but it's worth-it-to-watch television, even with a few red flags.  The link also has a written transcript.

Norah O'Donnell led the face-to-face interviews with the crown prince and asked tough questions – much tougher than a royalty-ruler normally will take – about female drivers, human rights violations, the Ritz-Carlton billionaire detention, Osama bin Laden, the end of the oil boom, and why the place is so unpleasant.  Just the fact that the guy did it is impressive.

The crown prince's answers were so fluid and intelligent that it's likely he got the questions beforehand, but it was still a good piece, because it was possible to learn a lot of new things from the man running things over there and a few of his Saudi cohorts.  There were things in it I didn't know, even as a follower of the news.

The crown prince came off as friendly, human, youthful, and savvy, an almost unheard of combination, given what most of us have seen from the Arab world in our lifetimes.  The photos and film of the Saudi nation seemed fairly normal, too – not the boiling hellhole you might expect, although this could be Potemkin-village stuff, to be fair.  The clear, fluid English-language skills of the Saudis who were interviewed left me a little wary of how much representation of the average Saudi was made.

Some things, such as his statements on the country's oil dependency for its economy, were about par for the Saudis – everyone knows that the Saudis are really smart on oil and managing booms and busts.  My Venezuelan oil sources, who have dealt with them, know this firsthand.  The Saudis, since at least 2012, have seen that the era of Big Oil is coming to an end with the fracking boom and are now carefully planning for it.  The prince's talk of diversifying the Saudi economy was impressive, and Thomas Lifson notes a new tack they are taking in his piece on the Saudis buying up Hollywood.  (It's just my anecdotal experience, but I think they will do well in this regard, given that their nationals are always there on the streets of Beverly Hills as tourists, they've been there for years, they like the place, they get along great with the Iranian and Jewish locals, and they spend a lot.  Other than a few princelings who've been cited for speeding, they cause absolutely no trouble.)

What was new and vivid to me was the crown prince's description of 9-11 and what Osama bin Laden meant to do when he unleashed his evil operation.  Much has been made of the Saudi aspect of the terror attack: the fact that most of the hijackers were Saudi nationals, which has made the average American come to loathe the country.  But the prince pointed out something different that could alter that perception: that bin Laden actually recruited Saudis and recruited them for a reason: to split the West and cause internal turmoil in the kingdom:

Norah O'Donnell: When many Americans think about Saudi Arabia, they think about Osama bin Laden and 9/11.  They think about the terrorism that he brought to American soil.

Mohammed bin Salman: Right.  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.

Norah O'Donnell: Why did Osama bin Laden wanna create that hatred between the West and Saudi Arabia?

Mohammed bin Salman: 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.

If this is P.R., it's really good P.R.  I suspect, though, that it's deep-known knowledge that just hasn't gotten out, and this expands our understanding of the country – and rather than fools us, suggests to us that maybe reform really is possible in this country.  If bin Laden had just picked 15 outlying losers and the attacks were not the result of the Arab street acting out on its natural impulses, it does mean that the culture is not lost and the prince should be able to steer back to its far friendlier and more modern roots.

The prince also pointed to the year 1979, with the assault on the Grand Mosque and the rise of the Iranian ayatollah, as the reason Saudi Arabia got to be such a benighted place to live in.  This passage is great, extremely enlightening:

Norah O'Donnell: There is a widespread perception that the kind of Islam practiced inside Arabia is harsh, it's strict, it's intolerant.  Is there any truth to that?

Mohammed bin Salman: After 1979, that's true.  We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal.

The crown prince traced most of Saudi Arabia's problems to the year 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini established an Islamic theocracy next door in Iran.  The same year, religious extremists in Saudi Arabia took over Islam's holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca.  In order to appease their own religious radicals, the Saudis began clamping down and segregating women from everyday life.

Norah O'Donnell: What has been this Saudi Arabia for the past 40 years?  Is that the real Saudi Arabia?

Mohammed bin Salman: Absolutely not.  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.

Norah O'Donnell: What was Saudi Arabia like before 1979?

Mohammed bin Salman: We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries.  Women were driving cars.  There were movie theaters 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 crown prince also recited Islam as the Quran specifies, pointing out that women are free to choose how they will present themselves respectfully in society, meaning they don't have to wear particular kinds of veils.  This has always been how I've known Islam as it's practiced in pleasant places such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.  Suddenly, Saudi Islam is recognizable – and this adds to the prince's credibility as he calls for more of this and enacts reforms.  The news program also presented a passage on female drivers in Saudi Arabia.

The prince was somewhat obscure on corruption and the corralling of Saudi Arabia's billionaire elites in the Ritz-Carlton and shaking out what his government says are stolen billions from the state ($100 billion, he says).

Obviously, he's taken on powerful people and shaken the place up as "the new sheriff."  O'Donnell brought up the crown prince's own wealth, and in the prince's reply, he didn't try to disguise it.  All I could thinks is, why should he?  Everyone expects a Saudi monarch to be rich.  His honesty was a credibility-builder.  Suffice it to say, most of us can read between the lines to see that anyone taking on the establishment has got to be prepared to use power, sometimes harshly.  Human rights activists may not see this, but the rest of us, knowing history, do.  Just as it takes a tyrant to make slaves of free men, so does it take a tyrant to make free men of slaves, as Eric Hoffer once said.  By local standards, the king doesn't seem too harsh.  But obviously, enacting change involves breaking a few eggs.

O'Donnell also brought up the mess in Yemen and Saudi's efforts to defend itself from Iran-sponsored attacks on the kingdom.  She portrayed the Saudis are rather inhuman, but the prince was again credible in his defense of his country:

Among the prince's official titles is "minister of defense."  And this is where his apparent fixation on Iran has led him into a quagmire in neighboring Yemen.

Mohammed bin Salman: The Iranian ideology penetrated some parts of Yemen.  During that time, this militia was conducting military maneuvers right next to our borders and positioning missiles at our borders.

His response was to launch a bombing campaign that's led to a humanitarian disaster, as we reported on 60 Minutes last fall.  He says Iranian-backed rebels have used the country to fire missiles at Riyadh.

Mohammed bin Salman: I can't imagine that the United States will accept one day to have a militia in Mexico launching missiles on Washington D.C., New York and LA while Americans are watching these missiles and doing nothing.

Anybody want to disagree with him on that?  Maybe in Europe, sure, but certainly not the borderlands of the frontier U.S. states.

In short, the item is worth watching because it expands our understanding.  Maybe the place won't be so baffling after all.  See the news item here.

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